The Supreme Court today agreed to consider arguments by Democrats and minorities against a controversial Republican redistricting plan, spearheaded by Rep. Tom DeLay, that redrew congressional boundaries in Texas and helped the GOP gain House seats in last year's elections.
The high court consolidated four separate appeals in the matter, noted "probable jurisdiction" and allotted two hours for oral arguments in the case. The arguments are likely to be heard in April, and a decision could be rendered by the end of June.
In agreeing to hear arguments in the case, the Supreme Court will review a ruling by a three-judge panel that allowed the 2003 redrawing of the Texas congressional districts. The panel rejected challenges to the constitutionality of the new boundaries by plaintiffs who contended they illegally diminished minority voting rights and constituted unlawful partisan gerrymandering.
The redistricting was approved by the Justice Department over the objections of the department's own staff lawyers, The Washington Post reported earlier this month.
According to a previously undisclosed memo, six lawyers and two analysts in the department's voting section found that the redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally diluting black and Hispanic voting power in two congressional districts, but senior Justice Department officials overruled them and approved the plan. The lawyers' memo also said the plan eliminated several other districts in which minorities had a substantial, though not necessarily decisive, influence in elections.
Delay (R-Tex.), then the House majority leader, was a primary instigator of the redistricting. In October 2003, he was admonished by the bipartisan House ethics committee for his role in muscling the new boundaries through the Texas legislature. The committee expressed concern that DeLay had pressured the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and other federal agencies in 2003 to help locate Democratic legislators who had fled Texas in an effort to head off the redistricting by denying the state's legislature a quorum.
DeLay was indicted this fall on conspiracy and money laundering charges in connection with corporate campaign contributions that were allegedly directed to GOP candidates for the Texas legislature in 2002 in violation of state law. The funds were intended to help the Republicans win control of the legislature, which would then be able to redraw the state's congressional districts with the aim of increasing the party's majority in the U.S. House.
The indictment forced DeLay to give up his post as majority leader. The Texas lawmaker denounced the charges as a partisan vendetta and vowed to regain his leadership post once he was exonerated.
But a Texas judge dealt those hopes a setback last week by refusing DeLay's motion to dismiss all the charges. The judge threw out a conspiracy count but let stand a more serious charge of money laundering.
Before the redistricting, Texas's 32 House seats were evenly split at 16-16 between Republicans and Democrats. As a result of the new boundaries, Republicans picked up five seats in the November 2004 elections.
Democrats charged that the new districts broke up minority communities and merged them into largely conservative, white districts. Among the big losers was veteran Democratic congressman Martin Frost, whose district was eliminated.
Frost and other Texas Democrats charged that the redistricting disenfranchised as many as 3.6 million black and Hispanic voters in the state.
As a result of the 2000 census, Texas, the nation's second most populous state, was entitled to two additional House seats, bringing its total to 32. But the state legislature failed to agree on a new plan in 2001, triggering lawsuits in state and federal court. A three-judge federal panel ended up drawing what it called politically neutral district boundaries to govern the 2002 congressional elections. Those elections produced a delegation made up of 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans, but one of the Democrats later switched parties.
After gaining control over both houses of the Texas state legislature in 2002 elections, Republicans decided to revisit the redistricting issue in 2003 and eventually succeeded in drawing new boundaries.
In January 2004, a special panel of three federal judges rejected a Democratic challenge to the new map. The Democrats had argued that Texas could not "redistrict in mid-decade" after boundaries had already been drawn, that the GOP plan unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race, that it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and that it violated the Voting Rights Act.
The panel stressed that it was deciding "only the legality" of the redistricting plan, "not its wisdom."