Judges approve dilution of minority voting strength
Published January 6th 2004 in Houston Chronicle
A panel of three federal judges ruled Tuesday that the new map of congressional districts in Texas violates neither the Constitution nor the Voting Rights Act. Just because the redistricting is legal, however, does not make it right.

Even the judges felt moved to note in their opinion that they did not endorse the merit of the new district lines. The panel called on Congress to outlaw redistricting except after the U.S. Census, taken every 10 years. Congress should act on that recommendation so that state legislators are not doomed to continual and paralyzing strife and voters are not shunted to new districts before every general election.

Earlier, the U.S. Justice Department approved Texas' new district lines, saying they did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Democrats allege that career lawyers at the Justice Department found the new lines did violate the act, but were overruled by President Bush's appointees. If true, and if the career lawyers' analysis is correct, then the appointees betrayed the law, the public trust and their own integrity.

The redistricting map is designed to make the Texas congressional delegation, now 16 Democrats and 16 Republicans, reflect the state's Republican majority. Republicans say the map could give them 22 members in the Texas delegation, leaving 10 Democrats.

The swelling of Republican ranks, though resented by Democrats, is not among the plan's sins. Not only did this year's bitter redistricting battle delay action on pressing matters such as school finance reform, but the new lines split many communities of minority voters to keep them from electing Democratic representatives.

Lawyers for the state argued that the systematic dilution of minority voting strength is not illegal if its aim is partisan advantage rather than racial discrimination. The federal judges agreed, but that cynical assertion resembles the idea that it is OK to trample on people for personal gain as long as you don't look down to see what's happening. It might be legal, but it is not just.

The League of United Latin American Citizens says it will appeal the judge's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court takes the Republican view, the Voting Rights Act will lose much of its meaning as it bows to the supreme imperative of partisan politics. As in Texas, black and Hispanic voters across the country could be split among grotesquely shaped districts as long as it helps the Republican Party.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says the map "ensures minority voting rights across the state of Texas." Abbott must believe compact communities of minority residents, such as those in Galveston County, have no right to vote in the same congressional district. His view might be legally correct, but it is unworthy of a public-spirited official.

Whatever the outcome of the current battle, legislators also could and should put the public interest ahead of political interests in the future and create a nonpartisan commission to redraw district lines after the 2010 U.S. Census.