(June 28, 2006)—In a fractured decision Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld much of the Texas congressional redistricting plan engineered by former House Speaker Tom DeLay, but ruled some of the boundaries failed to protect minority voting rights.
The court ruled that state lawmakers may draw new maps as often as they like, not just once a decade as Texas Democrats claimed.
That means Democratic and Republican state lawmakers can push through new maps anytime there is a power shift at a state capital.
A majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "We reject the statewide challenge to Texas redistricting as an unconstitutional political gerrymander."
But the ruling also found that the state's 2003 redrawing of District 23 violated the Voting Rights Act.
Republican Henry Bonilla of San Antonio represents that district.
The boundary changes shifted 100,000 Hispanics from the district and into a new, oddly shaped district.
Justices had been told that was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander under the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights.
The GOP picked up six Texas congressional seats two years ago, and the court's ruling doesn't seriously threaten those gains.
Lawmakers, however, will have to adjust boundary lines to address the court's concerns.
Challengers to the map included Democrats and minority groups who asked the court to declare the redrawn districts unconstitutional.
DeLay steered the controversial redistricting effort that helped Republicans win 21 of the state’s 32 congressional seats in 2004.
Among the Democrats the remap targeted was Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who survived a challenge from former Republican State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth in a GOP-friendly district.
The U.S. Justice Department approved the plan despite the conclusion of staff lawyers that it diluted minority voting rights.
Because of historic discrimination against minority voters, Texas is required to get Justice Department approval for any voting changes to ensure they don't undercut minority voting.
A memo, written by Justice Department lawyers in December 2003, concluded that the redistricting plan orchestrated by DeLay, was unconstitutional because it diluted minority voting strength in certain Congressional districts in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The Washington Post reported that the memo has been kept under wraps since it was written in December 2003 and that the lawyers who reviewed the plan were “subjected to an unusual gag rule.”
The plan, which carved up the traditional 11th Congressional District of Central Texas, targeted five incumbent Democratic representatives including Edwards.
The 11th District was not one in which the changes diluted minority voting strength, according to the memo.
May 12, 2003:
More than 50 Texas House Democrats secretly flee to Ardmore, Okla., blocking a quorum and halting business in the legislative chamber. They remain out of the state long enough to force the House to miss a key deadline, ending consideration of redistricting during the regular session.
June 30, 2003:
Special legislative session to take up redistricting begins.
July 14, 2003:
Republican Sen. Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant joins 10 Democrats citing "unalterable opposition" to redistricting, giving them enough numbers to doom redistricting in the Senate during the special session.
July 28, 2003:
Eleven Senate Democrats block a quorum by fleeing to Albuquerque, N.M., moments before the House and Senate adjourn the first special session and just before Republican Gov. Perry immediately calls a second special session on redistricting.
Aug. 26, 2003:
Second special legislative session ends with Democratic senators still in New Mexico and no redistricting bill passed by the Senate.
Sept. 15, 2003:
Third special session to address redistricting begins with Democratic Sen. John Whitmire of Houston defecting from Albuquerque. As a result, the remaining Democratic senators who fled return to the Capitol.
Oct. 12, 2003:
House and Senate compromise redistricting map sent to Perry's office for his signature.
Dec. 11, 2003:
Federal trial challenging the GOP redistricting plan begins in Austin.
Dec. 19, 2003:
U.S. Department of Justice gives preliminary approval, known as "pre-clearance," to Texas redistricting map.
Three-judge federal panel approves Republican-drawn map. Democrats promise appeal to U.S. Supreme Court.
Dec. 12, 2005:
U.S. Supreme Court agrees to consider challenges to the plan.
March 1, 2006:b>
U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments as it prepares to consider the challenges.
June 28. 2006:b>
U.S. Supreme Court upholds most of the redistricting plan.