By David Stout
Published January 6th 2004 in New York Times
A federal court in Texas unanimously approved today a redistricting plan that could put Republicans in a strong position to dominate the Lone Star State's Congressional delegation for years to come.
The special three-judge panel in Austin upheld the political map that Republican leaders pushed through the State Legislature in October after more than five months of bitter fighting with Democrats that reflected the high political stakes. Passions ran so high that a number of Democratic lawmakers left the state on two occasions to deny the Republicans a quorum for a vote on the plan and to elude law enforcement agents who might fetch them to the Statehouse to create a quorum.
Democrats and minority groups sued to block the Republican plan, contending that it was unfair to some minority voters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and South Texas.
The plaintiffs contended, among other things, that the Republicans' map work violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects the rights of minority voters.
But the judicial panel, headed by Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, rejected those arguments.
"We hold that plaintiffs have failed to prove that the state statute prescribing the lines for the 32 Congressional seats in Texas violates the United States Constitution or fails to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," the panel wrote.
The judges also found that the plaintiffs, who included various voters and groups representing minority interests, had failed to prove racial discrimination by the architects of the redistricting.
In language that recognized the rich history of the blood sport of gerrymandering, in Texas and elsewhere, the panel noted, "We decide only the legality" of the Republicans' plan, "not its wisdom."
Today's ruling is not the last word, however, since the plaintiffs in cases brought under the Voting Rights Act have the right to automatically appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
Representative Martin Frost, a Democrat whose district will be drastically changed under the new map, told The Associated Press that the ruling "turns back the clock on nearly 40 years of progress for minority Americans."
But the Texas State Republican chairwoman, Tina Benkiser, offered a contrasting view, telling The A.P. that the judges had "reaffirmed the will of the Texas Legislature."
"In 2004, the people of Texas will finally have a Congressional delegation that reflects their votes and their views," Ms. Benkiser said.
Democrats and Republicans are now split, 16 to 16, in the Texas delegation to Congress, thanks to the switch last week of Representative Ralph Hall from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Some Republican analysts have predicted that, with the new district lines, their party could emerge from this fall's elections with a 23-to-9 advantage.
Democrats had contended that after the Legislature failed to devise a satisfactory redistricting plan after the 2000 Census, a plan imposed by the courts should have stood until after the next census, in 2010.
The judges rejected that position. "Although there are compelling arguments why it would be good policy for states to abstain from drawing district lines mid-decade, plaintiffs ultimately fail to provide any authority ó constitutional, statutory or judicial ó demonstrating that mid-decade redistricting is forbidden in Texas," the panel wrote.
The Texas redistricting was not the first to be fought out in court, and it will surely not be the last. The United States Supreme Court has taken a Pennsylvania redistricting case under review. And in December, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with Democrats against a Republican drive to redraw the state's lines to their advantage. The Colorado court ruled that that state's Constitution allowed only one round of redistricting after a census.
The Texas jurists did not conceal their unease with some aspects of redistricting in general and in the specific case before them. But if the people find abuses, the judges said, they should take their grievances to Congress, which has the authority to ban mid-decade redistricting. And they noted that many states had already done so. The Texas panel, headed by Judge Higginbotham, who was named a district judge by President Gerald R. Ford and an appeals judge by President Ronald Reagan, wrote: "We know it is rough and tumble politics, and we are ever mindful that the judiciary must call the fouls without participating in the game."
The other judges are Lee H. Rosenthal, a district judge who was appointed by President George Bush in 1992, and T. John Ward, also a district judge, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1999.