The Justices Look at Some Shapely . . . Congressional Districts

(By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The Supreme Court hosted its own performance of "Beauty and the Beast" this week. On Tuesday, it heard the plea of Anna Nicole Smith, the former stripper and Playboy Playmate seeking a share of her deceased husband's fortune. Yesterday, the justices debated the aesthetics of three congressional districts in Texas.

"Particularly grotesque shapes," judged Justice John Paul Stevens. "Much less compact" than before.

Justice Stephen Breyer offered a partially concurring opinion. "A long walking stick is what it looks like . . . It's not a circle . . . It's not absolutely terrible."

Lawyer Ted Cruz, defending the state of Texas, found the map much more pleasing than the old one, which he said had "fingers" coming out of it. "It's not like they snake around," Cruz argued, rattling off what he called the districts' "perimeter to area score" and using fancy words like "equipopulosity."

Breyer demanded a more precise description of the shapes. "Either it is reasonably compact or it isn't," he said.

The maps of Districts 23, 24 and 25 were indeed odd: an 800-mile swath zigzagging along the Mexican border, a two-headed cat in between Fort Worth and Dallas, and a disfigured candy cane dangling from Austin.

But the geometric discussion evidently did not interest Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At first, she appeared to be reading something in her lap. But after a while, it became clear: Ginsburg was napping on the bench. By Bloomberg News's reckoning -- not denied by a court spokeswoman -- Ginsburg's snooze lasted a quarter of an hour.

It's lucky for Ginsburg that the Supreme Court has so far refused to allow television in the courtroom, for her visit to the land of nod would have found its way onto late-night shows. It's perhaps also lucky for Chief Justice John Roberts, who hectored Nina Perales, a lawyer for a Mexican American group, as if she were an unprepared law student: "Your argument is at cross-purposes. . . . What relevance does that have?"

But most everybody else could have benefited from a glimpse of the high court's proceedings. Yesterday's case on Texas redistricting was about crucial matters: the fate of minority voting rights; the principle of one man, one vote; the balance of power in the House of Representatives; and political gerrymandering that protects 98 percent of incumbents in both parties from challengers.

But the court permits no video or audio recordings. Unlike the White House and Congress, it allows no real-time transcripts. And the court, filled with lawyers of the "Supreme Court Bar," has little room for ordinary citizens, who are routinely turned away and sometimes camp overnight for a chance to see an argument. Most reporters, meanwhile, sat behind pillars yesterday with no view of the justices; a kindly court official held up fingers to indicate which justice was speaking, ranging from one finger for Roberts to nine for Samuel Alito.

Fortunately, watching yesterday's proceedings was fairly simple: It all came down to Justice Anthony Kennedy (four fingers, for those behind the pillars). He was the swing vote in a similar redistricting case two years ago, and if this case was going to go differently, Kennedy would likely play that role again.

The justice, bespectacled and hair askew, played the part, rocking in his chair and pressing both sides of the state legislature's mid-decade redistricting plan, a plan by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) that led the GOP to pick up six House seats in the state.

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