Full Court Press

3 Redistricting Cases Give Democrats Hope

Posted December 5, 2003 at 6:06pm

More than two years removed from the last national redistricting process, two lawsuits challenging Congressional district lines in Texas and Pennsylvania will be heard in federal court this week — the Pennsylvania case in the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile in Colorado, a federal court may act on redistricting soon even after the state Supreme Court invalidated a Republican-backed redraw last week.

Democrats are cautiously optimistic that the courts will rule their way — and improve their chances of taking back the House in 2004. But while the decisions in Colorado and Texas are likely to be narrowly tailored, the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling in the Pennsylvania redistricting case could have far-reaching implications.

The high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the Pennsylvania case Wednesday — the first time the court has heard a case on partisan gerrymandering since 1986.

The suit was brought by state Democrats who argue that their Constitutional rights were violated when state Republicans drastically redrew Congressional lines to the GOP’s favor.

Before last cycle’s decennial reapportionment and subsequent redrawing of district lines, the Keystone State’s Congressional delegation was comprised of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. The current delegation stands at 12 Republicans and seven Democrats, after the state lost two seats.

That makeup, Democrats argue, is drastically out of sync with the state’s competitive partisan leaning: Democrats hold a 48 percent to 41 percent registration advantage over Republicans, and last year the state overwhelmingly elected a Democratic governor.

“It’s clear that the Republicans engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering that has unfairly denied millions of Pennsylvania voters the ability to have a meaningful impact on the outcome of Congressional races,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed.

More broadly, Democrats argue in the case that the current state of redistricting — and the partisan gerrymandering that both parties engage in — is counterproductive to the democratic process because it has dramatically reduced the number of competitive districts nationwide.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the political gerrymandering issue is not one for the courts but rather should be left to the state legislatures and executive branches. They also argue that the low level of turnover in Congress is caused by factors other than redistricting and that safe districts do not necessarily produce safe incumbents.

The practice of the party in control of the state Legislature rigging the redistricting process to its benefit is commonplace in state Capitols across the country. Therefore, if the court rules in favor of Pennsylvania Democrats and deems the current Pennsylvania map unconstitutional, some Democrats believe that they could also apply the ruling to what they consider to be other cases of “extreme partisan gerrymandering” in states like Florida and Michigan.

In those states, like in Pennsylvania, Republicans made healthy gains following last cycle’s reapportionment when GOP-controlled state legislatures redrew maps.

If that were to occur, Republicans would likely look to overturn maps drawn by Democrats for similar partisan gain in states like Georgia and Maryland.

If the court throws the current Pennsylvania map out, it could wreak havoc on next year’s elections. The court is not expected to rule in the Pennsylvania case before June 2004, after the state’s April 27 Congressional primaries.

In Texas, summary motions will be heard by a three-judge federal panel on Tuesday in Austin with the full trial expected to begin Thursday.

The suit is a consolidation of a number of legal actions brought by Texas Democrats, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several other civil rights groups after the Texas Legislature changed district boundaries earlier this fall. The re-redistricting could jeopardize several Democratic incumbents.

One of the issues in the Texas case was whether the Legislature had the right to draw the boundaries again even after a court-ordered plan had gone into effect following the 2000 Census, or whether lawmakers had forfeited their once-a-decade responsibility to set Congressional lines when the court intervened.

Two of the three judges on the federal panel are Republican appointees and two were on the panel that initially redrew the state’s lines — largely maintaining the status quo — in 2001.

The case is expected to last between five and seven days, with both sides looking for a decision before Christmas.

The Texas trial is the latest episode in the most high-profile fight over Congressional lines in the country.

After the 2002 elections, where Republicans retook control of the state House, they sought to redraw the Congressional lines put in place by the judges — a plan that resulted in the re-election of all 17 Democrats in the Texas House delegation.

Republican state legislators were repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to redraw the lines this year by Democrats, who twice fled the state in order to rob GOPers of a quorum.

In a third special special session of the Legislature, however, with the strong urging of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a plan passed that could endanger as many as seven House Democrats: Charlie Stenholm, Chet Edwards, Nick Lampson, Jim Turner, Max Sandlin, Lloyd Doggett and Martin Frost.

Few aside from Doggett have engaged in speculation about where they might run if the map stands, choosing instead to direct their rhetorical fire at Republicans and advocate for a court appeal.

Doggett has already announced he will vacate his current 10th district seat to run in a new heavily Democratic district that runs from the Austin suburbs to the Mexican border. His candidacy got a boost Thursday when Hispanic state Rep. Kino Flores (D) dropped out of the race.

The Democratic appeal seeks to invalidate the Republican map on a variety of charges.

First, Democrats allege that mid-decade redistricting violates the tenets laid out in the U.S. Constitution that the line-drawing process occur only once every 10 years.

Second, Democrats believe the map is an example of racial gerrymandering, meaning that many of the districts have been drawn with race as the primary factor in their construction. The U.S. Supreme Court throughout the 1990s reinforced its opposition to racial gerrymandering in North Carolina and other Southern states.

The third facet of the Democratic appeal is that the map reduces the number of “minority opportunity” districts — where minorities hold a controlling vote in selecting the candidate — from 11 to 10.

Critics also say that the GOP map also eliminates seven “minority influence” seats where minorities, along with a coalition of like-minded voters, can select their nominees.

“The proposed plan disenfranchises 3.6 million minority Texans,” said Tom Eisenhauer, a spokesman for Frost, the Democrats’ point man on redistricting nationally and in Texas. “It is clearly illegal and we expect it to be thrown out.”

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Democrats were ecstatic over a 5-2 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court last week that threw out a new Congressional redistricting plan for the state that favored Republicans.

The court ordered the boundaries of the state’s seven Congressional districts to revert to the contours that were used for the 2002 elections, a decision that makes two of the districts far more competitive than they were in the map that went into effect six months ago.

But GOP leaders have not ruled out taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. And a Republican lawyer in Denver clouded the situation late last week by filing a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state court decision.

The court decision will be felt most profoundly in two districts: the 7th, in the Denver suburbs and exurbs, and 3rd, which covers the western half of the state.

The Legislature had transformed the 7th, a new district that freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) won by just 121 votes in 2002, from essentially a tossup district to one that strengthened Republicans and took a significant chunk of the 7th’s Hispanic population out of the district to favor Beauprez.

In the swing 3rd district, where Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) is retiring in 2004, the Legislature added rural areas and removed Hispanic neighborhoods in Pueblo, one of the Democratic strongholds of the district.

“I think Colorado will now be a real battleground for both parties in 2004,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), one of the elected officials who sued to overturn the lines.