The Supreme Court is injecting itself into the question of how much politics is acceptable in drawing legislative boundaries, revisiting a subject that has divided current court members.
The outcome of the new case, involving a hotly contested congressional map engineered by Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, could be affected by the court’s turnover, which is still in progress.
The justices said yesterday that they would review challenges filed by Democrats and minority groups.
The announcement came as a surprise. Texas had declined to present any arguments to the court, and it took the justices an unusual six weeks of private discussions to decide what to do with the case.
In addition, lawyers have been told that the appeal is being put on a fast track, meaning candidates for Texas congressional seats in 2006 will be campaigning as the court deals with the issue.
The Supreme Court is already looking at two campaign finance cases. That guarantees that 2006 will reveal where the court is headed on election-law issues without Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in September, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring.
Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor voted in 2004 to block all legal attacks on gerrymandering, the practice of drawing voting districts to favor a political party.
It’s likely, but not guaranteed, that new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. will take similar stands as their predecessors did. The Senate takes up Judge Alito’s nomination next month.
Judge Alito will be questioned about his views on voting rights and redistricting during the Senate hearings.
The high court’s last case on the subject, in 2004, involved a Republican-drawn redistricting plan for Pennsylvania. By a 5-4 vote, the court upheld the plan.
Justice John Paul Stevens, the leader of the liberal wing of the court, had complained in last year’s case that courts should not sit by when state leaders of one political party take over boundary-drawing in an “invidious, undemocratic and unconstitutional practice.”
The Texas case, like the one from Pennsylvania, asks whether political gerrymandering violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle protected in the Constitution. A separate issue is whether states can draw boundaries more than once a decade for the sole purpose of helping one political party.
Highlights of actions taken yesterday by the Supreme Court. The justices:
Said they would hear an appeal by a Georgia floor-covering company sued by current and former employees who say the firm hired hundreds of illegal aliens to suppress worker wages.
Turned down an appeal from Northlake Christian School in Louisiana, which was ordered to pay damages to a fired principal after an arbitrator found that the school failed to follow the teachings of the Bible, as required by its employment contract.
Left a California couple off its list of accepted cases before the holidays, refusing to hear the couple’s claim that Home Depot copied their Christmas tree stand and its packaging.