Statistics Rule Redisricting Trail Testimony Closing Arguments in Case Scheduled for Next Week

Article excerpt

Byline: Walter C. Jones, Times-Union staff writer

WASHINGTON -- The federal trial of Georgia's legislative and congressional districts fell into a plodding pace as expert after expert debated methods of statistical analysis.

Because lawyers for the state, the Justice Department and a group of four voters made their opening statements Monday, the only witnesses on the stand have been political scientists discussing the merits of probit analysis versus ecological regression analysis. At least one observer nodded off, and even political junkies who dropped by the courtroom two blocks from the U.S. Capitol -- including ex-U.S. Rep. Elliott Levitas -- drifted back out and returned to work.

Federal District Judge Emmet Sullivan said, "This trial is an fascinating one. This trial is an important one.''

But it sounded to some as if he were trying to convince himself or at least assure the 12 lawyers trying it that he was listening to their experts. If the testimony can't be called riveting, the case is indeed important in that it determines the boundaries of 249 legislative and congressional districts where candidates are already campaigning for November's elections.

Professor David Epstein, the only witness called by the state, returned to the stand yesterday to defend a statistical assessment his lawyers claim proves black candidates won't be unnecessarily hampered by the new maps.

But in cross-examination, Justice Department attorney Robert Kengle got the statistician to admit that, under the new proposal, one or more black-majority Senate districts likely won't elect the candidate preferred by blacks.

The Justice Department called University of New Orleans professor Richard Engstrom to the stand, and he was bombarded by cross-examination questions about the limited scope of his study.

David Walbert, a lawyer for Georgia, pointed out Engstrom's analysis didn't take into consideration the power of incumbency, the difference between high-profile and low-profile campaigns, or the racial voting patterns in majority-white districts.

Political officials are watching the case to see if it could predict how other state district maps fare under court review this year. Georgia's maps are the first to wind up in court, the only time three maps have landed in the same case. …