High Court to Review Texas Congressional Districts

The Supreme Court has agreed to review the constitutionality of a map for Texas congressional districts that opponents say was improperly manipulated. The map, engineered by Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), helped Republicans increase their hold on the Texas delegation.

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In Washington, the US Supreme Court entered the politically charged arena of congressional redistricting today. The justices said they will examine the legality of Texas' redistricting plan. It was bitterly contested by Democrats, and it resulted in Republicans gaining six seats in Congress. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

The plan was the brainchild of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had a razor-thin majority to work with in the House of Representatives in Washington. DeLay's idea was to undo a previously approved redistricting plan that had been completed after the 2000 census and to substitute a new plan redrawing district lines so as to virtually assure Republicans six additional House votes in Texas. To that end, he aggressively raised money to elect enough Republican state legislators to pass the new reapportionment plan.

Democrats in the state Legislature fought back, even fleeing the state to deny the Republicans a quorum. Latino and black voters objected to the plan, claiming it diluted their voting strength. But the Justice Department in Washington ruled that the plan did not violate the Voting Rights Act. And, finally, after a long struggle, the plan was enacted.

On the legal front, though, the challenge to the plan continued, and today the Supreme Court said it would examine the issues presented by four separate groups of voters. The court said it would devote an unusual two hours of oral argument to the case in March. Among the questions before the court are these: Once the plan has been approved after a census, does the Constitution allow a second middecennial redistricting? Does the Constitution put any brakes on a redistricting plan that, in this case, the Republicans concede was done for a purely partisan advantage? Were the voting rights of minorities diluted by this plan, in violation of the Voting Rights Act? And was the one person, one vote doctrine violated because the second redistricting was based on census data that, by that time, was old?

Professor PAM CARLIN (Stanford University): So the court will have a menu of claims in front of it.

TOTENBERG: Stanford law Professor Pam Carlin is an expert on voting rights laws.

Prof. CARLIN: And it's possible that the court will strike down the plan without ever reaching whether it's politically fair or not. It's also possible that the court will develop some rule with real teeth in it for what counts as a politically acceptable plan under the equal protection clause. It's anyone's guess.

TOTENBERG: In short, the court could invalidate the plan as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and not tackle any of the other questions, or it could tackle all of them.

A good deal has happened since the plan was adopted in 2003 by the Republican-controlled state Legislature. For Tom DeLay, the plan has proved to be something like quicksand. DeLay now faces a felony charge that he laundered money in violation of state law in order to elect a state Legislature that implemented the plan. The House Ethics Committee has reprimanded him for improperly using the Federal Aviation Administration to locate some Democratic state legislators who had fled the state during the legislative fight over the plan. And earlier this month a two-year-old Justice Department memo surfaced disclosing that the career lawyers in the voting rights section unanimously concluded that the plan was illegal under the Voting Rights Act. The conclusion, however, was overruled by Bush administration political appointees in the department, thus allowing the plan to go forward.

With confirmation hearings set for Samuel Alito in January, it is unclear which justices will hear the Texas case. In the last major test of partisan redistricting at the Supreme Court, the court was evenly split, with Justice Kennedy casting the deciding vote against intervention by the court while at the same time questioning whether there might be some limit to partisan redistricting. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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