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Senior Justice Officials Approved Texas Redistricting Plan

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Senior Justice Officials Approved Texas Redistricting Plan

Politics

Senior Justice Officials Approved Texas Redistricting Plan

Senior Justice Officials Approved Texas Redistricting Plan

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Justice Department lawyers concluded that Texas' landmark redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act. But senior officials at the Justice Department overruled them and approved the plan, which was spearheaded by former House Leader Tom DeLay.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A two-year-old confidential memo from the Justice Department sheds new light on the controversial Texas redistricting plan. The memo was leaked to The Washington Post, and it shows that a panel of career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division unanimously recommended that the voting rights section oppose the plan. Political appointees at the head of the division overruled that recommendation. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

In some ways, this is an utterly typical memo, says Mark Posner. He spent more than 20 years in the Civil Rights Division, much of that in the voting rights section.

Mr. MARK POSNER (Former Official, Civil Rights Division): The voting section staff prepare a detailed memo that discusses the arguments of both the proponents and the opponents to the proposed change, which is what this memo did.

SHAPIRO: It's 73 pages of analysis looking into whether Texas' redistricting plan would disadvantage minorities. The career attorneys' conclusion: that the plan was illegal because it would undercut the rights of blacks and Hispanics. After career attorneys wrote it, the memo went up the chain of command for the head of the Civil Rights Division to make a final decision on the case. That's where Posner says the outcome was atypical. The career attorneys' unanimous recommendation was rejected.

Mr. POSNER: It's fairly rare for an objection not to be interposed where the voting section unanimously favors an objection.

SHAPIRO: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke on the record with reporters today, but he would not allow his voice to be broadcast. He said ultimately at some point, someone's got to make a decision for the division. He went on, `The fact that there may be disagreement somewhere within the ranks doesn't mean that the ultimate decision is the wrong decision.' The Texas redistricting plan went forward with no objections from Justice. Republicans gained six House seats from Texas in the next congressional election, cementing their majority in Congress.

Civil Rights Division spokesman Eric Holland says this memo does not show that the redistricting plan was illegal. He points out that after redistricting, Texas actually elected one more African-American congressman. In fact, he says...

Mr. ERIC HOLLAND (Spokesperson, Civil Rights Division): A three-judge panel ruled that this redistricting process did not have the effect of discriminating against minority voters in Texas.

Former Representative MARTIN FROST (Democrat, Texas): That was a Republican court.

SHAPIRO: Martin Frost was a Democratic congressman from Dallas, voted out of office after Texas redrew its district lines.

Mr. FROST: There were three judges, two Republicans and one Democrat, and the two Republicans voted to affirm it and the one Democrat voted against it. So this has been a political process all the way along.

SHAPIRO: Joe Rich recently left the Civil Rights Division after 37 years three. He was head of the voting rights section and supported career attorneys who thought the redistricting plan was illegal. Rich says this memo reflects a larger pattern where political appointees ignore career attorneys' recommendations in an increasingly politicized environment.

Mr. JOE RICH (Former Official, Civil Rights Division): My biggest regret about all this is what it's doing to what has been a great institution, the Civil Rights Division. To see it be politicized like this is really dismantling what has been a great agency.

SHAPIRO: Mark Corallo was Justice Department spokesman when the memo was written. He agrees that the department has become politicized, but not, he says, because of the newcomers. He says Republican appointees are just reversing decades of entrenched liberal bias at the Civil Rights Division.

Mr. MARK CORALLO (Former Spokesperson, Justice Department): In the voting rights section particularly, from my experience of three years, those attorneys had liberal agendas. They were not calling it the way they saw it.

SHAPIRO: The redistricting plan itself was spearheaded by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He stepped down after being indicted on money-laundering and conspiracy charges. The redistricting plan's challengers are waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court will take the case. And the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Michigan's John Conyers, has called for an investigation of the Justice Department's Voting Rights Act enforcement. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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