In a partial victory for Texas Republicans, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld most of a 2003 redistricting plan that helped the state GOP win a near 2-to-1 advantage in congressional seats while igniting all-out partisan warfare with the state's Democrats.
Though key portions of the plan survived scrutiny by the high court, the justices in a 5-to-4 vote invalidated one of the newly drawn districts, saying race played an impermissible role in the redrafting process by diluting the voting power of Latinos.
The ruling could have far-reaching implications. Some analysts foresee a flurry of redistricting in states whenever one party or another deems it politically expedient. But the ruling dampens Democratic hopes of making significant gains in Texas this November since most of the Republican map remains intact.
The key exception is District 23, a seat currently held by seven-term Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla, which will have to be redrawn.
The action affirms much of an earlier ruling upholding the new districts by a special three-judge panel. But the justices disagreed with the lower court's conclusion that because politics, not race, was the key motive behind drafting District 23, no violation of the Voting Rights Act occurred.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said District 23 was drawn to exclude Latinos who were increasingly voting against Congressman Bonilla. The exclusion was illegal because it undercut the growing political clout of minority voters, Justice Kennedy says.
"The Latinos' diminishing electoral support for Bonilla indicates their belief he was unresponsive to the particularized needs of the members of the minority group," Kennedy writes. "In essence, the state took away the Latinos' opportunity because Latinos were about to exercise it."
Kennedy adds, "Even if we accept the District Court's finding that the state's action was taken primarily for political, not racial, reasons, the redrawing of the district lines was damaging to the Latinos in District 23."
The ruling means that District 23 will have to be redrawn, in part by redrawing surrounding districts in south and west Texas, including District 25.
At the center of the case was a statewide electoral map that set the stage for Texas Republicans to pick up six seats and cement Republican control of the House of Representatives.
The ongoing legal dispute threatened to throw the approaching Texas congressional elections into turmoil, potentially boosting Democratic chances to reclaim control of Congress. But with the fallout in only a few of the state's 32 congressional districts, most of the Republican map remains intact with Republicans in the other newly drawn districts continuing to enjoy the benefit of incumbency heading into the 2006 elections.
Under the old map, Texas Democrats held 17 of the 32 seats in Congress. After the new map, Republicans won 21 of the 32 seats.
Various groups of Democratic voters and elected officials filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Republican-drawn election map. They said it amounted to excessive partisan gerrymandering and that it illegally diluted the voting power of Latino and black voters in certain districts.
The high court disagreed on the gerrymandering claim and that the redrawing of District 24 in Dallas amounted to illegal dilution of black voting power. In addition, the high court rejected claims that Texas lawmakers violated constitutional protections when they redrew the congressional districts in mid-decade, rather than at the beginning of the decade as is customary.
Most redistricting occurs at the beginning of the decade. That's when new census data becomes available to apportion congressional seats nationwide to reflect population shifts and comply with the mandate of one- person, one-vote.
Opponents of the Republican plan had argued that if state lawmakers were allowed to redraw election districts whenever they perceived a partisan advantage, it would violate the one-person, one-vote principle because they would be relying on outdated census numbers.
The Supreme Court rejected this approach. "This is a test that turns not on whether a redistricting furthers equal- population principles but rather on the justification for redrawing a plan in the first place," Kennedy writes.
Some analysts have warned that if the high court endorsed mid-decade redistricting it might unleash a flurry of redistricting across the nation anytime state lawmakers perceive a partisan advantage in redrawing the election map.
In deciding the Texas case, the high court conceded that it remains highly splintered on the issue of when blatant partisan gerrymandering may become so unfair as to render a new election map unconstitutional.
At the same time, the court's ruling on Wednesday puts state lawmakers on notice that partisan motives will not shield them from scrutiny if newly drawn congressional districts dilute the political power of minority voters.
Wednesday's decision stems from an all-out political brawl in Texas that began in 2000 when the new census showed that because of population increases Texas would pick up two new congressional districts. At the time, the Texas House and Senate were controlled by different parties and the legislature was unable to agree on how best to create the new districts and redraw the old map. The job fell instead to the courts.
The judge-drawn map largely preserved the existing congressional districts, which meant Democrats continued to hold a majority of seats in the Texas congressional delegation despite growing GOP political clout in the state.
After Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature in 2002, the Republicans moved to redraw the map in a way that would undercut the political prospects of incumbent Democrats while boosting the chances of Republican candidates.
A primary architect of the plan was then- House majority leader Tom DeLay. Mr. DeLay has since stepped down from his powerful post and has announced his retirement from Congress. He is under indictment on charges that he funneled illegal campaign contributions to Republican state house candidates. Some of those successful candidates would later vote for the Republican redistricting plan. DeLay says his indictment was politically motivated by a prosecutor who is a Democrat.
Once Republicans took control of the Texas state legislature and announced plans to redraw the congressional districts, Democrats responded by going into hiding – twice – to prevent a quorum. First they fled to Oklahoma, and later hid in New Mexico.
Ultimately the plan was approved.
Democrats challenged the map in court, saying it violating constitutional protections of equal treatment and illegally diluted minority voting strength.
Republicans said the new map was aimed at correcting partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts by Democrats in years past.