WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday it would step into a long-standing battle between Texas Republicans and civil rights groups over electoral districts in that state.
The suit brought before the court charges that the redistricting plan violates the "one man, one vote" principle established by the Supreme Court during the civil rights era to ensure fair representation for minority voters.
The legal battle at the Supreme Court is over the unusual timing of the Texas redistricting, among other things. Under the Constitution, states must adjust their congressional district lines every 10 years to account for population shifts.
But in Texas the boundaries were redrawn twice after the 2000 census, first by a court, then by state lawmakers.
When a redistricting dispute was last settled by the court in April 2004, a close majority ruled that the judiciary was an inappropriate place to decide gerrymandering claims.
"With no agreed-upon substantive principles of fair districting, there is no basis on which to define clear, manageable, and politically neutral standards for measuring the burden a given partisan representation imposes on representational rights," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in a concurring opinion.
That overhaul of districts began about four years ago and was the brainchild of Rep. Tom DeLay, who is facing money laundering charges related to the 2002 election that brought Texas state Republicans into the legislature, enabling the district map changes. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove also reportedly helped engineer the new map behind the scenes.
The 2003 boundary changes helped Republicans win 21 of 32 seats in the U.S. Congress in 2004, up from 15. During the 2004 election, Texans voted in one additional black congressman besides the six additional GOP members. Of the 32 seats, six delegation members are Hispanic and three are black.
The changes were approved amid a nasty battle between Republican leaders and Democrats and minority groups in Texas. State Democrats gained national attention in May 2003 when more than 50 of them fled the state and were granted shelter in Oklahoma. Their absence held up progress on the redistricting plan, and angry Republicans took to slapping headshots of their missing colleagues on milk cartons.
Districts with large non-white populations were "just cut right down the middle, totally diluting the Mexican-American vote" said Luis Vera, general counsel for plaintiffs League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
Joining LULAC's complaint are several other organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The court will hear two hours of arguments on March 1 in four separate appeals. The outcome, League of United Latin American Citizens vs. Gov. Rick Perry, could very well affect the 2006 elections.
Plaintiffs in the case got a boost in recent weeks, thanks to revelations that the Justice Department overrode the objections of its staff lawyers in approving the redistricting plan.
According to a memo, first obtained by The Washington Post on Dec. 2, a panel of six staff attorneys and two analysts declared Texas' plan in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
But the U.S. attorney general's office signed off on the plan anyway. Under the Voting Rights Act, states must get Justice Department approval for any voting changes to ensure they don't undercut minority voting.
Staffers who worked on the plan were placed under a gag rule, and the memo was given to the Post by a staffer who was critical of the redistricting plan.
"What this means is there is not an independent Department of Justice," Vera told FOXNews.com.
"The argument could be made that the internal Justice Department memo is irrelevant to the technicalities and legalities in this case," said Gary Keith, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.
"But reality is the memo throws gasoline on the fire and whips this whole thing back up again," Keith told FOXNews.com. "It validates the position that there can be a partisan line you go over [in redistricting]."
Vera said that the proof of his claims is in plain sight. "Not a single Democrat holds statewide office. But at the local level, they are evenly split or the Democrats control the district."
A spokesman for DeLay refuted the lawsuits' claims.
"The effort to deliver a new congressional map was founded in the belief that a history of gerrymandering efforts by Democrats in Texas had resulted in an unfair representation of Texas voters," Kevin Madden said.
Phone calls to the state attorney general were not immediately returned.
A different court will decide this case than the one that decided last year's redistricting case. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is retiring, and Chief Justice John Roberts has been on the bench just a few months.
DeLay had to step down as House Majority Leader earlier this year after he was indicted in Texas on state money laundering charges and conspiracy charges. One of the conspiracy charges was dropped last week.
DeLay and two people who oversaw his fundraising 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 election or defeat of a candidate.
FOX News' Jane Roh and The Associated Press contributed to this report.