WASHINGTON – In less than three years, a Republican-imposed redistricting of Texas' congressional districts strengthened the GOP grip on Congress, hastened former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's fall from power and triggered a partisan clash over the voting rights of blacks and Hispanics.
Now the Supreme Court will consider whether it was constitutional as well as controversial.
In legal terms, the dispute turns largely on this: Whether the Republican maneuver in 2003 crossed the line between "excessive partisanship — which is unconstitutional — and permissible partisanship — which is not unconstitutional," according to Guy-Uriel E. Charles, a law professor who summarized the case in an American Bar Association publication.
In political terms, "It's conceivable that this case could swing control of the House of Representatives in November," said Mark Braden, a Republican lawyer with broad experience in redistricting disputes.
Republicans reaped a gain of six seats in Congress from Texas in 2004, when the new district lines were used. The state's delegation, which had consisted of 21 Democrats and 11 Republicans, became 17-15, advantage Republicans.
The case, scheduled for argument on Wednesday, marks the first time Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito will grapple with redistricting issues since their confirmations. At the same time, Justice Anthony Kennedy will be a particular focus of interest.
Kennedy cast the swing vote in a 5-4 decision in 2004 that upheld Republican redistricting in Pennsylvania. But unlike other justices who made up a majority, he suggested some future cpercent minority voters. It was broken up by Republicans and he lost in 2004 to a GOPO incumbent in a district that was majority white. Angle is Frost's former top aide.
Overall, the number of African-American and Hispanic Texas lawmakers in Congress rose from eight to nine after the district lines were redrawn.
The Justice Department approved the plan as acceptable under the Voting Rights Act, reversing a recommendation from staff lawyers who concluded it diluted minority voting rights.
The legal dispute flows from a bare-knuckled political clash.
Texas Republicans have long claimed that they were underrepresented in the House as the result of previous redistricting plans drawn by Democrats. DeLay, the former House majority leader, led a successful campaign to capture control of the legislature by Republicans in 2002, and the following year party leaders pushed through the plan to redraw the district lines.
Democrats struggled — several lawmakers fled the state at one point in an attempt to prevent the legislature from acting — but Republicans eventually prevailed.
Ironically, DeLay, one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress, soon found himself in jeopardy. The House ethics committee admonished him for asking a federal agency to help tracking the aircraft that flew Democrats out of state.
Months later, county prosecutor Ronnie Earle charged DeLay with conspiracy and money laundering in connection with fundraising for the legislative candidates in 2002. DeLay denied any guilt, but was required to give up his leadership post while the case was pending. His hopes of reclaiming power have since collapsed, and he faces a difficult re-election season in Texas.
The Supreme Court declined a request by The Associated Press to speed up release of audio tapes of the two-hour argument. Reporters are not allowed to bring cameras or other recording equipment into court, but justices have sometimes made audio tapes of arguments in major cases available immediately.