Supreme Court Tackles Texas: The High Court Bas Waded into the Thicket of Texas Politics, Agreeing to Review Controversial Redistricting There That Produced Ballot Box Gains for Republicans, but Criminal Charges for GOP Congressman Tom DeLay

Article excerpt

It's the middle of the decade, so why all the attention to redistricting? The U.S. Supreme Court has shaking us from our slumber, agreeing to hear several challenges to the fabled Texas 2003 congressional re-redistricting.

The outcome of the litigation could have far-reaching consequences for how legislatures redraw their own districts, as well as U.S. House lines. If the high court issues a decision that limits the practice of gerrymandering, legislatures will never be the same again.

Among the key questions the Court is considering is whether there are constitutional limits on a legislature's ability to redraw districts for partisan gain. In other words, can legislatures continue to engage in the practice of partisan gerrymandering?

The cases from Texas are perhaps the most well-known chapter in redistricting since Massachusetts legislators drew a map in 1812 that led to the birth of the term "gerrymandering." In that infamous episode, mapmakers aligned with Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry drew a state Senate plan to help elect Gerry partisans. A clever newspaper editor dubbed the plan a "Gerrymander" saying that the contorted districts resembled a salamander, and coined a new term to describe the art of drawing electoral districts to favor one group over another.

THE TEXAS RE-REDISTRICTING

The Texas redistricting odyssey began in 2001 when the Legislature, at the time politically divided with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans the Senate, failed to enact a new congressional map using recently minted 2000 census data. Plaintiffs rushed to court and demanded a judicial remedy in time for 2002 congressional elections. A federal court in Texas complied and adopted a new plan for the 2002 election through which Democrats won 17 of the districts and Republicans 15.

In the same election, Republicans seized the Texas House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction, partly due to a new, more GOP friendly, redistricting plan. The Republican takeover of the Legislature set in motion a plan to redo the congressional map. One of the key architects was Congressman Tom DeLay, who at the time was U.S. House Majority Leader. DeLay asked Republicans in the Texas Legislature to push through a controversial new map designed to maximize GOP seats. DeLay and his allies argued that the plan merely corrected decades of abusive gerrymandering at the hands of Democrats in a state that was trending heavily Republican at all levels of government.

Democrats in the Texas House vehemently opposed the effort. In one of the most highly publicized events in the annals of redistricting, more than 50 Texas House Democrats quietly left the state and holed up in Oklahoma as the legislation was pending. The gambit worked temporarily by denying the House the necessary quorum, and the redistricting effort failed as the Legislature adjourned.

A few weeks later, Governor Rick Perry called the Legislature into special session once again to take up congressional redistricting. This time, the Senate Democrats took flight to Albuquerque, N.M. Eventually one of the Democratic senators, Senator John Whitmire, returned to Austin, and the Republican-led Legislature enacted a new map for congressional districts in October 2003. The plan was subsequently approved by the U.S. Justice Department under its Voting Rights Act and put in place for 2004 elections.

The new redistricting was followed by the election of 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats to the U.S. House--a net gain of six seats for the GOP.

OFF TO COURT

Plaintiffs immediately challenged the new map in federal court on various grounds including a claim that it violated the U.S. Constitution as an impermissible partisan gerrymander. No legislative plan has ever been invalidated by a court as an illegal partisan gerrymander even though the Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that there could conceivably be a constitutional claim against egregious line drawing. …