Supreme Court Approves Most Texas Districts

The Supreme Court upholds most of the changes made in Texas's congressional districts, which were redrawn at the urging of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. But the justices ruled that in one district, the map failed to protect minority rights, saying that it violates the Voting Rights Act.

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A splintered Supreme Court ruled today on one of its biggest cases of the year. The justices upheld most, but not all, of the controversial Texas redistricting plan. Texas did its congressional redistricting mid-decade. It's normally done every ten years, after U.S. census figures are published.

Even as the Court upheld the overall Texas plan, a five-justice majority ruled that one of the Texas districts violated the Voting Rights Act. The justices said Latinos were deprived of a chance to elect their chosen candidate.

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 U.S. House of Representatives. His idea was to undo a previously approved redistricting plan that had been drawn after the 2000 census and to substitute new lines so as to virtually assure Republicans six additional House seats from Texas.

After the GOP ran the plan through the state legislature, the Democrats challenged it in court, claiming that a mid-decade redistricting for purely political purposes is unconstitutional. And black and Latino voters challenged the plan as an illegal dilution of their voting strength under the Voting Rights Act.

Today the Supreme Court was so fractured in resolving those challenges that there were six separate opinions, totaling 123 pages. The key vote, though, was cast by Justice Anthony Kennedy. On the big question, redistricting a second time in the middle of a decade, Kennedy cast his lot with the Court's conservatives, though his rationale was different from theirs. He said that a mid-decade redistricting is not constitutionally suspect and that the Texas redistricting was not entirely political, since it more accurately represented the GOP dominance of the state than had the previous plan. That plan, he said, merely entrenched a partisan gerrymander engineered by the Democrats when they were in power.

But when it came to the allegations of voting rights violations, Kennedy, this time voting with the Court's liberals, said the Delay redistricting plan diluted Latino voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Writing for a five-justice majority on this question, Kennedy focused on a southwest Texas district in which the growing Hispanic population had organized and was poised to topple the incumbent Republican.

The Delay redistricting plan, however, took 100,000 Hispanic voters out of the district, thus ensuring that the incumbent would win. Those 100,000 voters were then sprinkled across the rest of the state, Kennedy said, linking disparate groups together and diluting Latino voting strength. Overall, as political observer Stuart Rothenberg observes, it was a minor win for Democrats and a major win for Republicans.

Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (The Rothenberg Political Report): Certainly the Democrats were hoping for a real win. I think they were hoping to change the broader national dynamic with a major development in Texas. They didn't get that win and while they got a crumb, they didn't get the whole piece.

TOTENBERG: But as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute notes, whenever one or two legislative districts must be redrawn, the whole legislative map changes.

Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (American Enterprise Institute): You know, you move 100,000 voters and that's going to require moving a lot of voters from other districts as well. So it's going to have at least some impact at the margins. It would have to, on a half dozen districts.

TOTENBERG: It's not entirely clear what happens now in Texas. The legislature isn't even in session and there's serious doubt that it could accomplish a redistricting in time for the November election, especially since any legislative change would be subject to a 60-day review by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act.

The more likely, though hardly certain, scenario is that the new district lines will be drawn by the three-judge court that initially ruled on the case. That court would make its decision after reviewing plans submitted from all parties.

The larger question is what today's ruling will mean for other states, where one party dominates the state legislature and the governorship. Again, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Mr. ROTHENBERG: It looks to me as though that this is a green light for mid-decade redistricting, which really opens the door possibly in other states indefinitely to having multiple redistricting plans.

TOTENBERG: Attorney Gerry Hebert, who worked on this case for the Democratic Party, agrees.

Mr. GERRY HEBERT (Democratic National Party): The Supreme Court has really signaled that it will not intervene in any partisan gerrymandering cases because this was a case in the extreme and while it said that, you know, that door is still open, it's hard for me to imagine a case that could be brought that would be more extreme than this.

TOTENBERG: NYU law professor Rick Pildes, who specializes in election law, sees a contentious future on redistricting.

Mr. RICK PILDES (New York University): Once we have the fall elections and it's clear how much the House is in balance or not, if a few seats here and there could potentially flip the control of the House, that will create great motivation for legislatures in other states to try to do the same thing.

TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court concludes its term tomorrow, with a major opinion expected on Guantanamo detainees.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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