laming the Justice Department for an "unseemly delay" in ruling on the Texas redistricting plan, a three-judge federal panel today postponed congressional filing deadlines in Texas for a second time and held open the possibility that the May 1 primary election might have to be delayed.

U.S. Circuit Judge Sam Johnson's order, filed in the legal battle over the shape of new congressional districts in Texas, declared that the three-judge panel would draw new lines for the 27 districts as soon as possible, but blocked the state from holding any congressional elections until the court has implemented the new plan.

The Justice Department ruled last month that the plan approved by the Texas legislature last summer violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the impact of Mexican Americans in two south Texas districts.

In his order, Johnson said the Justice Department had "substantially impeded" the panel's ability to function in a timely manner because it had not ruled for roughly 140 days after receiving information about the plan from the state.

"This impediment has been occasioned by the unseemly delay, inattention and inactivity of the office of the attorney general of the United States," he wrote.

Johnson gave candidates from 16 disputed districts until March 19 to file for office. Texas Secretary of State David Dean has said that March 19 is the latest possible filing deadline that would allow a May 1 primary. But officials in the Houston area contend that will not give them enough time to prepare ballots and give voters an opportunity to vote absentee, opening the way for a possible delay of the primary.

The Justice Department was asked last week by Texas Attorney General Mark White to reconsider its objection to the congressional plan.

Because of population growth, Texas gains three seats in the next Congress, for a total of 27. The plan drawn by the legislature last summer was beneficial to Republicans, who now hold five of the Texas delegation's 24 seats. Under the disputed plan, the Republicans could have gained two to four seats, according to Texas political experts.