Officials moving fast on remap legal fight
Judges hope to have redistricting dispute settled by Christmas

By Pete Slover
Published November 4th 2003 in Dallas Morning News
MARSHALL, Texas ñ Redistricting lawyers and judges revved their engines Monday for a high-speed trial next month, aiming to decide by Christmas the legality of a Republican overhaul of the state's congressional districts.

The three-judge panel put off a decision on a critical early matter: Which congressional map should be used by local election officials and candidates while the case is pending? The current one, under which Democrats hold 17 of 32 U.S. House seats? Or the new map, designed to bolster Republican strength by as many as seven seats?

Various lawsuits brought against the GOP plan have been combined, with the central issue whether the new map illegally reduces minority voting strength. Several lawyers for Democrats said the court does not need to address the issue of minority voting rights, maintaining that the act of redistricting in a non-census year is unconstitutional. The court said it would consider that argument Dec. 8, three days before the trial is scheduled to start.

The Republican map has not been approved by the U.S. Justice Department, a requirement before it can be used, noted U.S. District Judge T. John Ward.

"The state's plan is not yet legal," Judge Ward said, addressing state lawyers backing the GOP map. "You're asking us to assume that y'all are pre-cleared."

Seeking a freeze

Attorneys for Democrats ñ more than a dozen lawyers involved in at least four lawsuits ñ argued in favor of using the current map, thereby preventing the Republicans from using their map until after 2004 elections.

"I think the court could freeze the current map as it is," said Paul M. Smith, a lawyer for Texas Democratic House members, who warned against allowing a legally questionable plan that might run incumbents out.

Besides promoting stability, he said, such a freeze would allow time to measure the effect of a Pennsylvania gerrymandering case expected to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court next year.

The period for filing for Congress in Texas runs from Dec. 3 to Jan. 2, with an extra period, from Jan. 11 to 15, if the new map is approved. Before that time, local officials must begin issuing voter registration cards and perform other functions that depend on their knowing where the congressional lines lie.

Guide for officials

A Republican lawyer was granted permission to submit a proposal that would guide local election officials in implementing the new plan, if approved by the Justice Department and the courts.

"My proposal is that we be allowed to submit a pragmatic plan ... a way to minimize the disruption," said Andy Taylor, a Houston attorney hired by the state to help the attorney general defend the new map.

Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham said he would give the opposing lawyers until Friday to consult with one another, and after that the court would issue an order regarding which plan should be used.

With the agreement of all participants, the panel set a Dec. 11 trial, compressing into the next four weeks a pretrial litigation schedule that could take months or years in a less time-sensitive matter.

Also, the judges moved the proceedings from this logistically challenging, airline-deprived East Texas venue to Austin, closer to redistricting computers and experts expected to be heavily consulted in the trial.