The Supreme Court handed Democrats a victory Monday, ordering a lower court to reconsider a Texas redistricting plan that could give Republicans six more seats and a firmer hold on their majority in the House.
The decision won't affect next month's elections, though any GOP gains on Nov. 2 could be wiped out later if the plan ultimately is deemed unconstitutional.
States must redraw boundaries every 10 years to reflect population shifts found during the census. Five appeals over the Texas boundary-drawing pose an interesting question: Can political leaders of a Legislature force district drawing more frequently than once a decade, to make more seats winnable for members of their party?
The case has been exceedingly contentious. Democratic legislators twice staged walkouts from the Texas Legislature to protest district-drawing that benefited Republican candidates.
And House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was admonished recently by the House ethics committee for getting too involved.
In a brief order, justices threw out a victory for Texas Republican legislators, and ordered a three-judge federal panel in Texas to reconsider the issue.
"I see this as the Supreme Court punting right before the national election," said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School. "It buys the Supreme Court another term before it has to rethink the issue. Maybe by then we'll have a new justice or two."
The Supreme Court has been divided on how much politics should be allowed in redistricting. In a 5-4 ruling last spring, justices left a narrow opening for challenges claiming party politics overly influenced election maps.
The court said Monday that the Texas map should be viewed again, in light of that decision.
Texas lawmakers failed to pass new maps for the state's 32 House seats in 2001, after the census numbers were in, so a federal court drew up a plan.
Republicans took control of the Legislature after 2002 elections and started working on another map early in 2003. Democrats in the state House and Senate staged quorum-breaking walkouts in an attempt to kill GOP-led bills, but the Republicans ultimately prevailed.
The Texas delegation is now even at 16-16. But because of the redrawn districts Republicans could hold up to 22 seats after the election.
DeLay had pressed state lawmakers to redraw districts. Democrats complained and the bipartisan House ethics committee determined earlier this month that DeLay, the No. 2 House Republican, raised "serious concerns" by contacting the Federal Aviation Administration last year to help locate Democratic lawmakers who fled to Oklahoma in an effort to thwart passage of the DeLay-engineered redistricting plan.
A report from the Transportation Department's inspector general found that DeLay's request set off a search that spread over eight hours and involved at least 13 FAA employees.
Washington attorney Paul M. Smith, one of the attorneys for opponents of the new map, said in a Supreme Court filing that the Texas experience "is proof that the redistricting process in this country has gone completely haywire."
He said with Texas as the model, states could be forced through painful district drawing every two years "for any reason, including raw partisan greed."
Ted Cruz, Texas' solicitor general, said that the lawmakers were trying to reverse maps that benefited Democrats. He said the state is solidly Republican and the new boundaries are not out-of-line.
The Constitution does not say when line-drawing must be done, but Smith told justices that voters are guaranteed the right to choose their representatives through "free and fair elections."
He said the new plan targeted seven Democratic incumbents, putting them in districts with another incumbent, adding Republicans to their districts or giving them hundreds of thousands of new, unfamiliar constituents.
The three-judge panel that upheld the map in January said that Congress — not courts — has the power to bar states from redrawing districts over and over. That panel will reconsider its decision.
The cases are Jackson v. Perry, 03-1391; American GI Forum of Texas v. Perry, 03-1396; Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee v. Perry, 03-1399; Travis County v. Perry, 03-1400; and Henderson v. Perry, 03-9644.
Also Monday, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a lawsuit filed by a former Georgia representative who claimed her loss in the 2002 Democratic primary resulted from wide-scale Republican crossover voting.
The court let stand a 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that threw out Democrat Cynthia McKinney's lawsuit, citing a lack of sufficient evidence. The ruling said the Democratic Party is free to hold an open primary.
The case is Oshburn v. Georgia, 04-217.