WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld most of a controversial plan that drew new lines for Texas congressional districts, saying there was nothing about it that violated the Constitution, even though Texas Republicans did it unusually in mid-decade and in ways that gave their party a massive electoral advantage.
The 7-2 decision cleared the way for states to redraw political maps just about anytime they want. It also failed, as the court has for years, to define the legal limits of political gerrymandering, or the drawing of district lines for partisan ends.
But the justices also ruled 5-4 that one of the newly drawn Texas districts unfairly disadvantaged Latino voters, in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That part of the decision adopted a new approach to defining discrimination in the context of gerrymandering.
The case is called League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry.
The court's failure to define the limits of partisan gerrymandering, coupled with the new analysis of the Voting Rights Act, could usher in a new round of challenges to political maps around the nation.
"The failure of the court to come up with authentic partisan gerrymandering standards leads people to other ways to strike down these partisan maps," said University of Pennsylvania law professor Nathaniel Persily. "Voting rights challenges were already cropping up quite a bit before this ruling, and I think this will increase it."
Ned Foley, a law professor at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said the part of the opinion that appears to award new strength to voting rights claims is significant. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's more liberal justices in forging it and opposed new Chief Justice John G. Roberts.
"It's Kennedy taking on Roberts over voting rights and getting more votes," Foley said. "That's an important development on the court."
The immediate impact of the ruling will be felt only in Texas, where courts and lawmakers will need to fix the voting rights violations the court identified in a single district. That district must be redrawn by November, when mid-term congressional elections are scheduled.
Texas Republicans, led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, redrew the congressional map in 2003 in ways that helped them gain six additional House seats. The move sent Democrats and some minority groups to court crying foul over the timing of the Republican effort, its overall effects and the impact on minority voters in three districts.
The justices accepted review of the case only after a district court had grappled with a 2004 high court ruling that had rejected claims that partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court has long struggled with the idea of defining when partisan gerrymandering becomes unconstitutional partisan deck-stacking.
In the 2004 ruling, Kennedy held out hope that a way could be found to set limits on naked attempts to draw political majorities into a map.
It wasn't found in Wednesday's ruling, though.
Writing for the court, Kennedy put together a seven-justice majority to reject complaints about the timing of the redistricting and the new map's effect on electoral outcomes. He found that the Texas map, while aggressive, didn't violate principles of one-person, one vote. Nor does mid-decade redistricting sufficiently infringe voters' rights to compel court interference, he wrote.
Kennedy continued to hold open the possibility, however, that redrawing the political-district map could violate individuals' constitutional rights. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer embraced Kennedy's position.
Importantly, the court's newest members, Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, also said that they're willing to consider possible limits on partisan gerrymandering.
But Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas flatly rejected it. They believe that the limits of political gerrymandering aren't for courts to decide.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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