High Court's Hot Potato: Redistricting ; A Texas Case, Argued Wednesday, Could Hand House Seats to Democrats - or Unleash More Gerrymandering

Article excerpt

A high-stakes redistricting case is pushing the US Supreme Court into politically charged territory.

At issue: whether Republican tactics to redraw Texas congressional districts in 2003 violated election laws or the US Constitution.

A decision by the high court, which hears the case Wednesday, could have far-reaching political consequences.

Striking down the redistricting plan, which helped give the GOP a near 2-to-1 advantage over Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation, could bring as many as six congressional seats into play for the Democrats. They hope to seize control of the US House of Representatives in November. Upholding the plan, however, could unleash a new round of increasingly aggressive efforts by both Republicans and Democrats around the country to use partisan gerrymandering to try to establish one-party domination of local, state, and national politics.

"If the decision from Texas is upheld, it means effectively that state legislators can, at their will, redraw districts for purely partisan or special interest gain," says Steve Bickerstaff, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and author of an upcoming book on the Texas redistricting effort.

Both sides bring sharply divergent perspectives about the case to the high court.

Lawyers for the Republicans say the redistricting plan was an effort to counteract decades of blatant partisan gerrymandering by Democrats when they controlled politics in Texas.

"This case is fundamentally about democracy," says Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz in his brief to the court.

"Nonsense," replies Paul Smith in his brief on behalf of Texas Democrats. "This was not some bipartisan effort to reallocate districts equitably," he writes. "Orchestrated from Washington, it was one of the most notorious partisan power grabs in our history."

The saga of the Republican plan to redraw Texas voting districts has more twists and turns than a rattlesnake on hot asphalt. A primary architect of the plan, then House majority leader Tom DeLay, has since stepped down from his powerful post. He is facing both a tough reelection effort and a pending indictment on charges that he funneled illegal campaign contributions to Republican statehouse candidates who later voted for the redistricting plan.

Once Republicans took control of the Texas statehouse and redrew the political map of Texas, Democrats responded by going into hiding - twice - to prevent a quorum. First they retreated to Oklahoma, and later hid out in New Mexico.

Ultimately the plan was approved. The new districts replaced a plan drafted by a three-judge panel in 2001 after lawmakers had deadlocked on how best to redraw the Texas districts. …