AUSTIN – Federal judges on Tuesday upheld a new congressional map for Texas designed by Republicans to boost the party’s power in Congress and wipe out the state’s last vestige of Democratic control.
The decision by a three-judge panel clears the way for the March 9 primary to be held with lines the Legislature approved in October after months of bloody political combat.
It could swing as many as seven seats from the Democratic to GOP column, potentially giving Republicans a 22-10 majority in the state’s delegation to Congress.
Two out of three judges – both appointed by Republican presidents – rejected arguments by Democrats that the new map illegally dilutes minority voting strength. The only dissenting judge was appointed by a Democratic president.
“Plaintiffs have failed to prove purposeful racial discrimination,” the judges wrote in their 127-page opinion.
For Dallas-area residents, the most significant change is the dismemberment of the district held for years by U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Arlington, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. The new map scattered his base of black support across five suburban districts dominated by white Republicans.
Mr. Frost said he’s ready to run in one of four North Texas congressional districts, all of which were drawn with a GOP tilt.
“I’m going to be some Republican’s worst nightmare,” he said. “I love a good fight, and I’m prepared to take the fight directly to the people of North Texas. Some Republican is going to wake up next week and have a bad day.”
This year’s redistricting battle in the Legislature was brought by Republicans, who argued that the state’s congressional map did not reflect Texas’ GOP dominance. The current map was drawn by federal judges after the 2001 Legislature deadlocked and failed to devise a map based on new census figures.
With the Legislature under Republican control last year for the first time since the 1800s, Democrats fled the state twice to hold up votes on new boundaries. But the GOP prevailed in a third special session of the Legislature.
Although the court questioned the wisdom of the mid-decade redistricting, it said it is up to Congress and voters to change the rules, which it said were not broken in the Texas case.
‘Only the legality’
“We decide only the legality of [the plan], not its wisdom,” the court wrote. “Whether the Texas Legislature has acted in the best interest of Texas is a judgment that belongs to the people who elected the officials whose act is challenged in this case.”
Dissenting U.S. District Judge T. John Ward said he would have ordered the state to amend certain portions of the map, while allowing this year’s elections to proceed using the old lines.
He agreed with the court that no law prohibited Texas from mid-decade redistricting. Likewise, he “reluctantly” concurred that the redrawing of Mr. Frost’s Dallas-Fort Worth district was not illegal, lamenting the vagueness of court rulings that might clarify when such actions are improper.
Gerald Hebert, a leading lawyer for the losing side, promised a quick appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“With their decision today, these judges have, for all practical purposes, repealed the Voting Rights Act,” Mr. Hebert said. “The court has signaled to legislatures everywhere that they can punish political enemies, reward political friends and surrender to national political parties without any concern whatsoever about the adverse effect on minority voting rights.”
Mr. Hebert said opponents of the map would ask for a stay from the Supreme Court to prevent its use in the March 9 primary.
However, experts said it would be difficult if not impossible to obtain such an order, and ecstatic Republicans said the map is sure to be used in the primary.
The Democrats’ appeal will fail, predicted Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican whose office defended the map.
“I think you will find that minorities … will be very appreciative for what the Texas Legislature has done,” Mr. Abbott said.
The ruling brought a flood of Democratic denunciations and Republican I-told-you-so’s.
State Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting said the court has endorsed a Republican “reign of terror.”
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who fought hard for the map’s passage in Austin, said the “Democrats did everything in their power to try to deny the reality that Texas is a Republican state.”
The map had cleared one necessary hurdle Dec. 19, when the U.S. Justice Department said it would not cause minority voting strength to backslide on a statewide basis.
A lawsuit filed by a collection of Democratic and minority groups challenged the plan within days after Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed it in October, arguing that the GOP map diluted minority voters’ influence and violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Democrats, civil-rights groups and dozens of minority voters bringing the suit aimed most of their fire at changes to Mr. Frost’s 24th Congressional District.
The majority opinion rejected claims that Mr. Frost’s district, despite its 60 percent black and Hispanic population, is a minority-controlled district protected by the federal Voting Rights Act.
The rearrangement of the current lines was not an act of racial discrimination, because blacks don’t have enough numbers to be the majority in that district, the two judges wrote.
“We find that [the movement of the large bloc of black voters] was the sole product of political give-and-take by legislative members over their own state districts and the effort not to create another Democratic district,” they wrote. “The actions were not taken because of race; they were taken in spite of it.”
The opposing sides also clashed over proposed changes to the sprawling 23rd District along the border, represented by Republican Henry Bonilla. It stretches from El Paso County to Laredo, then north to suburbs of San Antonio.
Although the district is now 67 percent Hispanic, low minority participation has let white Republicans at the district’s northern end control elections. The GOP redrew that district to pad Mr. Bonilla’s edge, by moving Democrats out of the district and lowering the Hispanic population to 55 percent.
Judges Lee H. Rosenthal and Patrick E. Higginbotham said the plaintiffs failed to show either a discriminatory intent or a Voting Rights Act violation.
“The state presented undisputed evidence that the Legislature changed the lines of Congressional District 23 to meet the political purpose of making the district more Republican and protecting the incumbent, Congressman Bonilla,” they wrote.
Dissenting Judge Ward condemned what the plan did to the Bonilla district, saying it illegally abolished a seat in which Hispanics could determine the outcome.
“The state’s solution to this political problem was brutal, yet simple: destroy the opportunity district,” Judge Ward wrote.
The GOP argued that any minority losses along the border and in Dallas-Fort worth were offset by gains in two new minority “opportunity” districts elsewhere.
The judges rejected claims by Democrats and minorities that the map was an impermissible partisan gerrymander and noted that the unusual elongated shapes of the south Texas districts was, in part, a function of geography and population distribution.
Nathaniel Persily, an assistant professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “The Supreme Court has erected a standard for partisan gerrymandering claims that is unreachable – no court has ever found a redistricting plan that violates it.”
He said Texas Democrats’ best shot on appeal rests on their claims of diluted black and Hispanic voting power, “although I think even that is going to be unlikely” to rescue them.
Staff writers Christy Hoppe in Austin and Gromer Jeffers Jr. in Fort Worth contributed to this report.
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