Naked City

DOJ: Re-redistrict at Will

On Friday, a few hours after the conclusion of the federal trial on Texas congressional redistricting, the U.S. Department of Justice contacted Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor and the federal judges hearing the case to inform them that DOJ does not "impose any objection" to the enforcement of the new Texas map. The letter notes that DOJ preclearance (required under the Voting Rights Act) does not bar other litigation against the map -- e.g., the lawsuit currently being heard. Final arguments in that case were scheduled for Tuesday morning (see p.22).

The DOJ letter is signed by Sheldon T. Bradshaw, principal deputy assistant attorney general. Gerald Hebert -- lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Texas suit and himself a former DOJ attorney -- says that in 20 years of agency work and thousands of voting-rights cases, he never saw such a letter that was not signed by the chief of the Voting Section of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. He calls this more evidence that DOJ political appointees overruled the division staff that actually reviewed the Texas map.

In a letter to the DOJ requesting the staff report on the case, Hebert described "an unprecedented gag order" prohibiting the attorneys reviewing the Texas map from discussing the matter, either with their colleagues or outside the agency. Prior to Friday's announcement, Hebert told reporters outside the courtroom that should the agency preclear the map, it meant that "there are forces at work at the Department of Justice other than a fair and evenhanded review of the plan for compliance with the Voting Rights Act."

Gov. Rick Perry welcomed the DOJ decision, saying it means "senators and representatives carried out their constitutional responsibility this year in a fair and legal way." The reaction from other GOP officeholders was similarly jubilant, from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on down to new state party Chair Tina Benkiser. The Chutzpah Prize goes to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, who declared, "This decision is great news for African-Americans, Hispanic Texans, and of course, for Republicans -- three groups which, up until now, had been deprived of their fair share of representation in the Texas' congressional delegation." The statewide rejoicing of minority voters must be why the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American GI Forum, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are all waging a federal case against the new map.

Democratic officeholders issued statements decrying the decision but saying they were not surprised by it, noting that for the first time the DOJ has allowed a state to eliminate performing minority districts. Reps. Garnet Coleman and Jim Dunnam said a just resolution is now up to the federal courts: "DOJ's opinion only addresses Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act," they said, "and is not binding on the federal courts. Objections raised by civil rights groups and Democrats in court under Section 2 of the act and the United States Constitution are not affected by the DOJ action." Section 5 mandates DOJ preclearance of electoral changes to prevent "retrogression" of the established voting rights of minorities; Section 2 is broader, forbidding the "dilution" of minority voting strength.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

redistricting, U.S. Dept. of Justice, pre-clearance, Voting Rights Act, Gerald Hebert, Jim Dunnam, Joe Barton

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