Thursday, June 29, 2006

Top court upholds most of Texas redistricting plan

Top court upholds most of Texas redistricting plan
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld almost all of a bitterly contested Texas congressional map engineered by then-Rep. Tom DeLay to help solidify Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The high court by a 7-2 vote refused to overturn the entire map and rejected the argument that it involved an illegal partisan drawing of boundaries of voting districts.

"We reject the statewide challenge to Texas' redistricting as an unconstitutional political gerrymander and the challenge to the redistricting in the Dallas area as a violation of the Voting Rights Act," Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court majority.

Only one district violated the federal voting rights law and must be redrawn, he said.

Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer voted to strike down the entire plan. Stevens said it cannot survive constitutional scrutiny because the sole motivation was a desire to minimize the strength of Texas Democrats.

The court decision was a blow to Democratic hopes of winning back seats in Texas as they fight to get control of the 435-seat House in the November elections.

Julian Zelizer, a Boston University professor and expert on U.S. politics, called it a "huge decision" by the justices that "made it easier for parties to protect themselves."

Other experts said the ruling gave states more discretion to do mid-decade redistricting. Traditionally, states redraw their congressional boundaries once at the start of the decade, just after the national Census.

J. Gerald Hebert, a lawyer for the Texas Democratic challengers, said, "The decision could open the floodgates for partisan redistricting."


Mary Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters, said "We now can expect an even more vicious battle between the political parties as they redraw district lines every two years for partisan gain."

Before the plan, Democrats had a 17-to-15 majority over the Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation. After it took effect, the delegation had 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

The court ruling that one district in southwestern Texas violated the federal voting rights law and will have to be redrawn was hailed by a leading Latino legal group.

"The Texas Legislature chose to violate the integrity of the democratic process by intentionally removing 100,000 Latino voters from a district to try to control the election result," said John Trasvina of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

DeLay, once one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, strongly supported the 2003 plan that added to the slim Republican majority in the House. DeLay, a former House Republican leader, resigned from the U.S. Congress on June 9 and faces money laundering charges in Texas.

The ruling produced a total of six separate opinions from the nine-member court, amounting to more than 120 pages.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the court's newest members who were appointed by President George W.) Bush, voted to uphold the entire plan.

Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry called the ruling a "clear victory."

(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles)