A federal three-judge panel ordered Texas Gov. Mark White yesterday to seek the Justice Department's approval for a special congressional election, now scheduled Saturday, and said it would throw out the results if the state does not comply by Aug. 9.
White said in a statement that he would obey the court order but is considering an appeal.
The ruling is the latest round in a fight between White, a Democrat, and Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds over whether the special election schedule in Texas' 1st Congressional District requires advance approval under the Voting Rights Act.
The legal battle has cast a shadow over the runoff between Democrat Jim Chapman and Republican Edd Hargett for the seat vacated last spring when Rep. Sam B. Hall Jr. (D-Tex.) was appointed to a federal judgeship.
The three judges in San Antonio ordered the state to submit the election schedule to the Justice Department by last night. White said only that "we are preparing the papers for submission to the Justice Department as quickly as we can."
John V. Wilson, a spokesman for Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the department has offered to approve the Texas request within 24 hours so the election will not have to be postponed. He said there was only "a remote possibility" that Reynolds would seek to delay the vote.
Wilson described the ruling as "tough" and said it gives the department a major victory over White. But he denied allegations that Reynolds' challenge was politically motivated. "This whole matter has been worked up by career attorneys, and Brad just approved what they did," he said.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, joined some Texas Democrats in accusing the Justice Department of "intimidation" aimed at suppressing voter turnout.
"Only in the final two weeks of a hotly contested campaign, with the Republican candidate in trouble, does the Justice Department push forward to force the state to submit their plan for approval," Edwards said. Wilson responded that the department had tried earlier to persuade Texas officials to comply voluntarily.