Sunday, June 25, 2006

Redistricting Ruling Imminent

The US Supremes will decide on this soon. Interesting how all of this is happening at the same time that the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act is being deliberated. Whatever the court decides will have far-reaching implications.

Redistricting Ruling Imminent

Supreme Court's Decision
Could Be Felt Far Beyond Texas
June 22, 2006; Page A10

WASHINGTON -- Republican Texas lawmakers didn't like the electoral map that a federal court adopted after the 2000 census, so they redrew it -- and gained six seats in the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As early as today, the U.S. Supreme Court could say whether that mid-decade redistricting, which former Rep. Tom DeLay orchestrated to solidify control of the House, is constitutional. If the answer is yes, the implications could be felt far beyond Texas as Democrats and Republicans rush to embrace the technique of strategically reallocating voters among congressional districts after each election.

"If the Supreme Court decides that it's legal, not doing it would constitute a unilateral surrender," says Howard Wolfson, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Democrats see the necessity of fighting fire with fire."


Battleground States Poll:2 Good news for the White House in June hasn't had much impact for GOP candidates in tight Senate races.
At the same time, Republicans could themselves export the tactic to other states they control. In Georgia, Republicans already have used mid-decade redistricting to dilute Democratic strength in the university town of Athens.

"If we win, it will affirm there's no ban on mid-decade redistricting and there's no serious constraint against partisan gerrymanders," says Michael Carvin, a Republican lawyer involved in the Texas case. But while Democrats have "made noises" about retaliating in their states, he says they will run into a problem peculiar to their own membership: Squeezing more Democratic-leaning districts from a map would almost certainly require splitting minority voters into multiple districts, undercutting their strength as a voting bloc. "They would really have to violate the Voting Rights Act to change the map," Mr. Carvin says.

Of course, Republicans can't be sure of a win at the Supreme Court. The court could rule the DeLay map unconstitutional on one-person, one-vote grounds, forcing a remapping in Texas that would almost certainly benefit Democrats.

Even if the court finds no constitutional bar to the DeLay map, it could strike it down for violating the Voting Rights Act. At oral arguments, Justice Anthony Kennedy -- who is emerging as the court's new swing vote -- seemed sympathetic to arguments that the DeLay plan had diminished Hispanic voting strength in South Texas.

The Constitution requires that congressional seats be reapportioned among the states after each decennial census. Under Supreme Court rulings dating to the 1960s, congressional districts must be equal in population. The federal Voting Rights Act protects minority populations from diminution of their electoral strength.

Some states have their own provisions to deter repeated partisan remaps. New Jersey and Washington state, for instance, have independent commissions that redraw lines. Others put limits on the legislature: Colorado Republicans redrew their lines in 2003, but the Colorado Supreme Court said repeat redistricting violated the state constitution.

Federal law has been silent, however, on the question of repeated redistricting of congressional seats -- largely, perhaps, because it was such a rare occurrence. Mr. DeLay's innovation may have changed that.

Outraged by the DeLay maneuver, in 2003 some Democrats openly pondered redrawing electoral maps to boost their candidates' chances in states they controlled. But party leaders urged that such plans be shelved, for fear of undercutting legal arguments against Mr. DeLay's mid-decade redistricting.

That concern would vanish if the Supreme Court upholds the technique. Still, there are only a handful of states where conditions are ripe for a possible Democratic retaliation.

"You need a place where the Democrats are fully in control and where there are more seats to be squeezed out if the districts are redrawn," says Richard Pildes, a New York University law professor who filed a brief against the Texas plan. The states that best fit the target, Mr. Pildes says, are Illinois, Louisiana and New Mexico, all of which have more Republican representatives than their population's partisan breakdown would suggest.

Still, even as national Democratic leaders might seek to play tit for tat, local conditions could interfere with plans to redraw maps. In California, Democrats controlled both the Legislature and the governorship in 2001 -- but declined to squeeze the map for maximum partisan advantage.

"In California, it was a bipartisan conspiracy that involved both Democrats and Republicans to solidify the lines so that all incumbents were safe," says Garry South, a Democratic political consultant in Santa Monica, Calif.

Write to Jess Bravin at jess.bravin@...3 and Ben Winograd at benjamin.winograd@...4

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