By Charles Lane and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 29, 2006
The Supreme Court upheld most of Texas's Republican-drafted 2003 congressional redistricting plan yesterday in a ruling that could prompt majority parties in other states to redraw political maps to their advantage.
The endorsement of the plan, which former House majority leader Tom DeLay crafted to tilt Texas's congressional delegation to the GOP, was not absolute. By a vote of 5 to 4, the court ruled that a sprawling West Texas district represented by Henry Bonilla (R) violates the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the voting power of Latinos.
But seven justices rejected at least part of the opponents' broadest contention: that the entire Texas plan is unconstitutional because the legislature rewrote a previous court-drawn map, three years after the most recent census, out of nothing more than a desire for Republican advantage.
The seven justices gave widely varying reasons for rejecting the constitutional challenge, and the court did not quite say that no such challenge could ever succeed.
But with six justices producing 123 pages of opinions, without any five of them able to agree on how to define an unconstitutional gerrymander, politicians of both parties said that the ruling leaves the door wide open to attempts to copy the DeLay strategy in other states.
"Every redistricting is a partisan political exercise, but this is going to put it at a level we have never seen," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "That's the gift that the Supreme Court and Tom DeLay have given us."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said, "While I agree with the court's opinion that this kind of mid-decade redistricting can be done, that doesn't mean it is a good idea. Voters want to have a relationship with their members of Congress. That cannot happen if districts are just amalgamations of political groups, and it cannot happen if the districts change every few years."
The main deterrent to gerrymandering could be the sheer political bloodiness of redistricting battles. In Texas, the GOP's plan was enacted after months of drama in which Democratic legislators twice fled the state in efforts to prevent it from being voted on.
"It's a traumatic thing to go through," said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, former general counsel at the Republican National Committee. "Even if there are a bunch of seats on the table, if you've got a governor and legislature that have a program they want to put through, it really does disrupt the rest of the legislative program."
DeLay paid a heavy personal price for his redistricting victory. His fundraising on behalf of the plan resulted in his being admonished by the House ethics committee and indicted on state charges of illegally diverting money to the campaigns of state legislators who drew the new map. As a result, he had to quit the House.
It appears that, because of the court's finding of a Voting Rights Act violation, the state will have to tweak its district lines, and submit them for court approval, in time for the November midterm elections -- though experts said they doubt the changes would significantly alter the current partisan balance in the state's House delegation, which consists of 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
The Supreme Court's rulings culminate a political drama that began after the 2000 Census increased Texas's share of the U.S. House from 30 to 32 seats. When the state legislature, in which each party controlled one chamber, deadlocked on a new district map, a federal court imposed one. That map produced a 17 to 15 Democratic edge in the House delegation.
After Republicans took control of both chambers of the legislature in 2002, DeLay and his allies launched the redistricting bid, arguing that the state's House delegation in Washington should reflect the voting population's GOP majority.
In the view of two dissenting justices yesterday, DeLay's openly pro-GOP motivation should have been enough to invalidate the 2003 plan. Calling the previous court-imposed lines "manifestly fair and neutral," Justice John Paul Stevens, in an opinion joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, said the 2003 plan "violated [the state's] constitutional obligation to govern impartially."
But everyone else diverged from Stevens -- albeit for different reasons.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, repeated his longstanding view that there is no way for courts to rule consistently on such controversies, and that they should therefore refuse to hear them.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that "there was nothing inherently suspect about a legislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with one of its own." He added that it would be unfair for the court to strike down the 2003 GOP plan after having let a 1991 pro-Democratic Texas plan stand.
Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with only one of Kennedy's narrower arguments -- that a mid-decade partisan redistricting is not necessarily unconstitutional because it would create unevenly sized districts based on outdated census numbers.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that the question of a constitutional standard was not properly presented in the case.
On the Voting Rights Act issues, Kennedy, supported by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, voted to strike down Bonilla's West Texas district because, he wrote, it was drawn to head off mounting political activity by the area's Latino voters just as they were turning against Bonilla and "were poised to elect their candidate of choice."
This "undermined the progress of a racial group that has been subject to significant voting-related discrimination and that was becoming increasingly politically active and cohesive," Kennedy wrote.
But Kennedy, backed this time by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito, voted to reject a separate voting-rights challenge brought by black voters against the plan's breakup of a racially diverse Dallas area district.
Blacks said the district should have been protected under the Voting Rights Act because they had decisive influence there. African Americans made up 25.7 percent of the population and played a key role in Democratic primaries. Democrat Martin Frost, who is white, represented the district from 1979 to 2004, when he lost his seat.
Kennedy wrote that a three-judge district court panel had reasonably concluded that the district was "controlled" by Anglo Democrats, so its breakup represented no unlawful diminution of black power.