Supreme Suspense

In the coming days, or hours, the Supreme Court will consider whether Tom DeLay's a good map maker.

As Tom DeLay morphs from Texas elected official to Virginia lobbyist, he leaves a threefold legacy: corruption, bitter partisanship and the Texas congressional district map adopted in 2003. While the first two may be with us for a while, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on whether to throw out DeLay's map, possibly today and almost certainly before the end of next week.

For the electoral newbie, first a primer: Congressional redistricting usually follows each new census, but in 2001 Democrats were still clinging to power in the Texas House, so they won a court-drawn map virtually unchanged from the 1991 map drawn when they were still firmly in control. When DeLay's party finally reigned supreme, he decided to ignore tradition and re-draw the lines in 2003 without a new census. The move cost six Democratic incumbents their seats in 2004, including 13-term Dallas congressman Martin Frost. Matt Angle, a longtime Frost aide, is leading the war of words against DeLay's gerrymander through his Lone Star Project. "While the Republicans like to point back to [the 1991] redistricting as unfair, not a single one of them lost as a result of it," Angle tells Unfair Park. "The only incumbent that lost was a Democrat."

Seven suits were filed against the DeLay plan's titular sponsor, Governor Rick Perry. The Supreme Court agreed to consider four of them. Republicans have good reason to like their chances: A spokeswoman for the Texas GOP was absolutely correct when she told me yesterday, "Up to this point we have won at every level that the case has been presented." But a close look at the high court suggests there's no guarantee that streak will continue.

Most Supreme Court watchers see the vote breaking down along the lines of an earlier redistricting case, Vieth v. Jubelirer. In that case, it was a Republican-leaning gerrymander in Pennsylvania after the 2000 census that was being challenged. In 2004 the court ruled 5-4 that it couldn't see constitutional grounds for intervening. The two justices added to the court since then, Roberts and Alito, would likely have voted as the justices they replaced did, leaving the balance of power unchanged.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy, though he eventually voted with the majority, gave little love to partisan gerrymandering in a separate opinion on Vieth, and he is expected to be the swing vote on the Texas case as well. During oral arguments on March 1, Kennedy dwelt on how DeLay's map has hurt minority political influence. But he also seemed skeptical that the Republicans acted unconstitutionally, so it's still a mystery as to which way he'll go.

Because the court is so divided on the issue, if the 2003 district changes are thrown out, the ruling will probably be narrowed to apply to DeLay's mid-decade effort only. In Texas, that would mean a lot of scrambling to hold new primaries before September's general election, but outside the state, little would change. On the other hand, if the 2003 map stands, both sides predict a massive national ripple effect. As Angle puts it, "The Supreme Court will have given the green light to any state legislature to redistrict for political reasons any time they want to." --Rick Kennedy

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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