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Archive for Saturday, December 10, 2005

Politics still run redistricting

December 10, 2005

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A leaked memo has proved what was widely suspected: Justice Department political appointees overruled career lawyers to approve a Republican congressional redistricting plan for Texas.

So a decision with major political ramifications was made by - politicians. Hardly a surprise.

And while this does not excuse the lengths to which Texas Republicans went to deprive Democrats of congressional seats, it reflects reality. In fact, last month's elections produced evidence that voters are less outraged than editorial writers and good government groups are about politics determining such decisions.

In Ohio and California, voters overwhelmingly rejected proposals - the first instigated by Democrats, the latter by Republicans - to turn over the redistricting question to nonpartisan panels. Probably affecting the outcome was the fact that both proposals would have allowed mid-decade redistricting and were seen as partisan efforts to undo prior decisions.

Indeed, those votes won't end efforts to change how redistricting is done.

Several other states are considering creation of nonpartisan redistricting panels; pending congressional measures would create national guidelines; and the Supreme Court has left open the prospect of allowing some limits on how much political considerations can affect reapportionment.

For now, the best and most likely remedy will remain the ballot box. After all, elections created the GOP majorities that wrote the Texas redistricting plan - as well as the Democratic ones that drew a map in California that favors their party. So different results could lead to a different plan.

Controversy over partisan redistricting is hardly new. Indeed, it's almost as old as the republic.

It got its commonly used name in 1812, when supporters of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry created a district that looked like a salamander, prompting the coining of the term gerrymander.

For many years, the Supreme Court avoided the issue as part of what Justice Felix Frankfurter once termed "the political thicket." But since its historic 1962 decision requiring "one man, one vote" in legislative districts, the court has ruled in a number of redistricting cases, most recently a 2004 decision that partisan gerrymandering is not in itself unconstitutional but that there may be some instances that would be improper.

Four justices, all of whom remain on the court, said that courts could formulate ways to find partisan redistricting excessive. A fifth justice, Anthony Kennedy, said such a finding was possible. That means the court could, in a future case, overrule a legislature's decision on political grounds.

That case involved Pennsylvania. A Republican legislature and governor approved a map that led to the election of 12 Republicans and seven Democrats to the U.S. House in a state that has split evenly between the parties in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections.

Pennsylvania was not the only big state in which recent Republican successes enabled GOP majorities to pass favorable redistricting plans. It also happened in Michigan, where the GOP has a 9-6 majority; Florida, where its lead is 18-7; and Texas, which went from a 17-15 Democratic margin to a 21-11 GOP advantage.

The Texas plan, enacted in a bitter months-long battle that included the flight of Democratic legislators to New Mexico, is now facing what could be its final legal test in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are considering an appeal contending that it was illegal for the GOP to redraw the lines for a second time in the decade after the 2000 census.

Meanwhile, both parties are gearing up for elections that could be the chief determinant when the next round of redistricting occurs after the 2010 census.

Next November, 36 states including Texas will elect governors, and, while 22 now have GOP governors, eight can't run for re-election. By contrast, 13 of 14 Democratic incumbents are eligible to run. Most states also will elect one or both legislative houses.

These elections - and those in 2008 and 2010 - will decide whether GOP redistricting gains of this decade are expanded or reduced. That is, unless the voters take this inherently political issue away from the politicians.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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