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Redistricting ... a fight as big as Texas

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND   |   Dec. 4, 2011 at 3:30 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Texas Republicans, locked in a struggle with massive national implications, are fighting hard to preserve a redistricting map that favors the party and are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court for help.

Redistricting is a big deal. Republicans control more state legislatures than Democrats, and state legislatures are supposed to come up with redrawn maps based on the 2010 census. If Republicans beat Democrats at this game -- constructing new districts that give GOP candidates an advantage -- they can consolidate their huge gains in the last midterm election and possibly guarantee their control of the U.S. House for a generation.

Grassroots Quarterly, the Republican National Committee's magazine, published an article earlier this year titled "The Redistricting Storm Arrives," recognizing the new opportunities.

Besides the 63-seat gain in the U.S. House, the 2010 elections brought a "bottom up" sweep, the article said: Republicans elected six more governors and gained 700 seats in state legislatures, "placing the party in an unprecedented position of strength as it enters the 2011 redistricting process."

Republican control of state legislatures increased from 16 to 26 nationwide.

Republicans took control of the Alabama Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and the North Carolina Legislature for the first time since 1870. Both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature went from Democratic to Republican control.

"Redistricting is a state-by-state process, even for congressional districts," the article said. "How these districts are drawn will affect the political fortunes of congressmen and legislators for the next five elections."

The redistricting process in Texas is a little complicated.

Like other U.S. areas with a history of discrimination against minorities, Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act require the Texas Legislature to seek "pre-clearance" from a special three-judge federal court in Washington or from the U.S. attorney general when making changes in how elections are conducted.

In submitting its plan to the Washington court, Texas said its "proposed redistricting plans for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas State Senate neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority and otherwise fully comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

The state asked for a quick ruling that its plan could be implemented for the upcoming elections.

But the three-judge panel in Washington said that dog wouldn't hunt. Tied up with related litigation and initially rejecting the Legislature's maps, the Washington panel ordered a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio to review the redistricting plan to test its compliance with Section 5 and come up with an interim plan if necessary, pending a final ruling in Washington.

"The Republican-dominated Legislature was determined to maximize GOP officeholders in Austin and Washington" through redistricting, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorialized. "They for sure wanted to squeeze U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett from Austin out of office, and they wanted to make it near impossible for state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth to win another term."

The Lone Star State gained more than 4 million residents from 2000 to 2010, translating into an additional four seats in Congress. The growth was overwhelmingly because of an increase in the Hispanic population, the newspaper said. "But because Texas Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats," the editorial said, "Republican lawmakers opted to accommodate party interests rather than include more districts with Hispanic majorities."

The three-judge panel in San Antonio agreed with that opinion, more or less.

Using Section 5, the panel rejected the state Legislature's plan 2-1 and substituted an interim plan of its own that tends to favor Hispanics and Democrats. The panel also refused to stay its ruling.

The panel majority implied it's hands were tied, and suggested Texas officials might be in better shape for a quick process had they sought pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department rather than the Washington court.

"Had the state chosen the path of administrative pre-clearance through the [U.S.] Department of Justice, we would perhaps be in the remedial phase right now," the majority said. "However, the state chose to file a lawsuit in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia, which is still pending, and we are not in the remedial phase.

"Instead, we are in an interim phase where the court has been placed in the position of crafting an independent court-drawn plan that complies with the U.S. Constitution and Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act," the opinion said. "In doing so, the court [panel] is precluded from simply adopting the state's enacted plan or deferring to the challenged plan, as doing so would make the pre-clearance process meaningless and constitute a de facto ruling on the merits of the various legal challenges to the state's plan. ...

"The court [panel] cannot simply adopt an unpre-cleared redistricting plan, in whole or in part, with the signatures of a few judges sitting in Texas."

The Texas panel's interim plan was good news for Democrats. The Washington Post reported the "new interim redistricting map in Texas would give Democrats a good shot at winning three of the state's four new House districts and could help them win the battle to create new Democratic-leaning congressional districts nationwide in the decennial round of redistricting."

Texas officials, led by state Attorney General Gregg Abbott, said after the ruling they would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the panel's plan in favor of the Legislature's. Abbott said the court-drawn maps are "judicial activism at its worst."

Abbott said a Supreme Court stay of the process is necessary because "elections should not proceed based on legally flawed maps that are likely to be overturned on further review."

Abbott filed two emergency stay requests with the high court last week, one targeting the court panel's statehouse redistricting and the other targeting congressional redistricting.

The requests brought an immediate political response from one opponent.

"Today, Attorney General Greg Abbott applied for an emergency stay of the maps from the United States Supreme Court, once again, putting the 2012 election cycle in jeopardy," the Texas Tribune quoted state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, as saying.

Martinez Fischer heads the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus in the Texas Legislature.

"The leadership in the Legislature chose to ignore overwhelming Latino growth in our state and refused to adhere to the Voting Rights Act. Now the courts have had to step in and apply the law," he said. "

The leadership of Texas defaulted on their opportunity to enact fair and legal legislative maps. Instead, they sought to expand their political power on the backs of African-American, Latino and Asian-American Texans."

Justice Antonin Scalia, who oversees Texas as part of the 5th U.S. Circuit, gave civil rights organizations until Thursday of last week to file briefs in response to Abbott's filing on the statehouse map, and until Monday morning on the congressional redistricting map.

Meanwhile, state candidates, a particularly confused bunch, were supposed to begin registering their candidacies last week, in many cases not knowing where the political lines would be drawn.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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