- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Supreme Court gave the green light yesterday for states to draw new congressional and legislative districts in the middle of a decade and also approved most of the Texas congressional district map that helped Republicans gain five U.S. House seats in Texas’ 2004 elections and solidify their majority.

Democrats had hoped the court would undo the Republican gains by invalidating the entire map, drawn at the behest of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but the court dashed those hopes by a 7-2 ruling. In a 5-4 decision, though, the court did strike down the lines for the state’s 23rd Congressional District, ruling the new boundaries unfairly reduced Hispanic voters’ clout.

Writing the key swing opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy cited a “troubling blend of politics and race” in invalidating the seat held by Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Republican. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

In his dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the Texas map overall increased the number of predominantly minority districts, so ruling against the 23rd Congressional District in particular was like saying the map achieved its goal but “loses on style points.”

The case, LULAC v. Perry, combined four separate challenges to the Texas map and spawned six opinions from the nine justices. None of them agreed in full with Justice Kennedy, and the court was unable to come to any agreement on the question of whether states can rely on purely partisan motives when drawing maps. That question is thus left open for future cases.

Redistricting usually happens once a decade, but Texas Republicans, unhappy with a court-drawn map that left the heavily Republican state with more Democrats than Republicans in Congress, passed a new map in 2003 to redraw the lines.

Democrats and minority rights groups challenged the plan, and yesterday they claimed some vindication.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the decision to strike down one district showed “Republicans are willing to curtail the rights of minorities for partisan gain.” And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the ruling should be a rebuke to the Bush administration’s Justice Department, which cleared the Texas plan under the Voting Rights Act.

But congressional Republicans saw the ruling as a solid victory that ends Democrats’ efforts to use the courts to win more seats.

“The decision dismisses the Democrats’ arguments that the Texas redistricting was improper or illegal,” said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, New York Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Democrats must now take their fight to the ballot box and abandon their attempts at courtroom obstruction.”

Those five Republican-held seats may loom large later this year, when Democrats are optimistic about their chances of taking control of the House after 12 years in the minority.

Even though the now says it’s acceptable to redraw lines at any time, Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who studies redistricting, said he doesn’t expect many states to press for new districts, in part because many states have laws or court precedents that specifically prohibit mid-decade redistricting.

“While this does permit the activity, this is not something where we’re going to see floodgates open everywhere and massive waves of redistricting,” he said.

Still, the temptation will exist in states such as Illinois, where Democrats have gained control of the state legislature and could deliver several seats for national Democrats.

Texas Republicans were very successful, changing a 17-15 Democrat advantage in the state’s congressional delegation in 2003 into a 21-11 Republican advantage two years later.

Already several lawmakers have said Congress should write rules to clamp down on mid-decade redistricting, including Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Mr. Davis said the court correctly ruled that the Constitution doesn’t prohibit mid-decade redistricting, but the Virginia Republican said that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

“We’ve let the courts speak on these issues long enough,” he said. “It may be time for Congress to return to these issues and see if we can make some clear rules that everyone can abide by.”

Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, said he plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit a second round of redistricting between censuses unless it was ordered by a court because of constitutional or Voting Rights Act concerns.

As for Texas’ current map, the justices sent it back to a three-judge panel in Texas to decide how to redraw the 23rd Congressional District.

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