WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the Justice Department's decision to ignore staff lawyers' concerns that a Texas redistricting plan orchestrated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would dilute minority voting rights.
A Justice Department memo released Friday showed that agency staffers unanimously objected to the Texas plan, which DeLay pushed through the Legislature to help elect more Republicans to the U.S. House.
Senior agency officials, appointed by President Bush, brushed aside concerns about the possible impact on minority voting and approved the new districts for the 2004 elections.
Gonzales said the plan was approved by people "confirmed by the Senate to exercise their own independent judgment" and their disagreement with other agency employees doesn't mean the final decision was wrong.
The decision appears to have been correct, Gonzales said, because a three-judge federal panel upheld the plan and Texas has since elected one additional black congressman.
Of the state's 32 House seats, Republicans held 15 before the 2004 elections. Under the DeLay-backed plan, Republicans were elected to 22 of the state's seats in the House.
The redistricting plan has been challenged in court by Democrats and minority voting groups claiming it was unconstitutional and that district boundaries had been illegally manipulated to give one party an unfair advantage. The Supreme Court is expected to announce soon whether it will consider the case.
"The Supreme Court is our last hope for rectifying this gross injustice. We couldn't count on the (lower) court. We couldn't count on the state, and we obviously couldn't count on the politically corrupt Justice Department," said Gerry Hebert, an attorney representing the challengers.
The plan was approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature in special sessions after Democratic lawmakers fled the state capital in an effort to block votes on the new congressional boundaries.
An effort by DeLay to use federal resources to help track down missing Texas lawmakers led to a rebuke by the House ethics committee.
Because of historic discrimination against minority voters, Texas is required under provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get Justice Department approval for any voting changes it makes to ensure the changes don't undercut minority voting.
"The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect," Justice Department officials said in the memo made public by the Lone Star Project, a Democratic group.
Eight department staffers, including the heads of the Voting Rights Division, objected to the redistricting map, according to the memo which was first reported in Friday editions of The Washington Post.
Hebert said when a case is a close call staff lawyers usually include counterpoints to their conclusions in their memo. But he said there is nothing in the 73-page memo suggesting a plausible reason for approving the map. "So that raises a lot of suspicions about the motives" of the senior officials who are political appointees, he said.
Texas Democrats, some who had been told years ago that agency staff had objected to the plan, were outraged.
"The fact that the White House has covered up this document for so long provides a smoking gun pointing out efforts, led by Bush political appointees and Tom DeLay, to systematically cripple the voting rights of minorities," said Texas Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, one of the Democratic lawmakers who fled to New Mexico to thwart passage of the redistricting plan.
DeLay is awaiting a Texas state judge's ruling on whether he must stand trial on charges of conspiracy and money laundering in connection with the 2002 elections. The charges forced DeLay to relinquish his House majority leader post in late September.
DeLay and two people who oversaw his fund-raising activities are accused of funneling prohibited corporate political money through the national Republican Party to state GOP legislative candidates. Texas law prohibits spending corporate money on the election or defeat of a candidate.
Several of the DeLay-backed candidates won election, giving Republicans a majority in the state House in 2001, when the congressional redistricting process began.