WASHINGTON – Texas Republicans were guilty of a naked political power grab when they re-drew congressional boundaries, the Supreme Court was told Wednesday in a case that could have a major impact on elections.
Justices are considering whether the Republican-friendly map promoted by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay is unconstitutional.
The 2003 boundaries approved by the GOP-controlled state Legislature helped the Republican Party pick up six seats in Congress, but it also led to serious woes for DeLay. He was charged in state court with money laundering in connection with fundraising for legislative candidates. He gave up his leadership post and is fighting the charges.
"The only reason it was considered, let alone passed, was to help one political party get more seats than another," justices were told by Paul M. Smith, a Washington lawyer who represents the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the groups challenging the plan.
"That's a surprise," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "Legislatures re-draw the map all the time for political reasons."
But Smith said lawmakers should not be able to get away with drawing oddly shaped districts that protect incumbent Republicans and deny voters their chance to vote for other candidates.
The court could throw out the map, just in time for elections this year.
At least 10 Texas lawmakers showed up Wednesday for an unusual two-hour Supreme Court session on the intricacies of political boundary drawing that could have a major impact on their elections and the balance of power in Congress.
"We would like to see some finality, not only for the people who run for office but for our people in our districts so they know who their member of Congress is," said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, as he arrived for the arguments.
The session also drew Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.
While state Rep. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, said allowing the map to stand would have serious ramifications for the country, Republican congressman Michael Burgess of Texas said overturning the map would have little effect because Texas remains a Republican state.
The case was expected to be a difficult one for the justices, who have struggled in the past to define how much politics is acceptable when states draw new boundaries.
The arguments come just a week before Texans vote in the primaries. Should the justices rule the map unconstitutional they could throw out the map and force new primaries.
Two years ago, justices split 5-4, in a narrow opening for challenges claiming party politics overly influenced election maps. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was the key swing voter in that case and will be closely watched in Wednesday's argument.
Also of interest will be the two newest court members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. They replaced the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had voted to block legal attacks on gerrymandering, the practice of drawing voting districts to favor a political party.
In addition, the court will consider whether the Texas plan violates the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect minority voting rights. The Justice Department approved the map over the objections of some staff lawyers.
The Bush administration will share argument time with the state of Texas in defense of the plan.
Minority and Democratic groups had challenged the plan, and the court's intervention to hear their appeals was somewhat of a surprise. The court's ruling is expected before July.
The cases are League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, 05-204; Travis County v. Perry, 05-254; Jackson v. Perry, 05-276; GI Forum of Texas v. Perry, 05-439.