Redistricting: GOP Has Lock – But Dems Have Key

Can Obama's DOJ thwart DeLay-style footwork?

It seems appropriate that the Tom DeLay trial would reach its climax last week – after all, it's time to discuss redistricting again. Austin-area Democrats did just that last week at the Central Texas Democratic Forum, a monthly affair held Downtown at the Austin Bar Association, hearing from a panel of folks knowledgeable on the issue.

With Democrats again suffering an electoral beatdown, this session could bear some similarities to 2003 – except this time, the congressional redistricting will actually occur after the decennial census (when it is supposed to), instead of just whenever it pleases DeLay. But some Democrats believe there is one key difference between then and now: "For the first time since the 1960s, we have a Democratic Justice Department to review the lines through the Voting Rights Act," noted Karl-Thomas Musselman, publisher of the Burnt Orange Report, a Democratic blog.

Musselman was referring to Section 5 of the VRA, which requires certain states with a history of racial discrimination to have redistricting plans approved by either the Department of Justice or the District of Columbia District Court. Back in 2003, that meant the GOP-drawn lines (intended to increase the number of Texas Republicans in Congress) were being reviewed by then-President George W. Bush's DOJ, which unsurprisingly had no objections. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court mostly upheld the map but did rule that one district violated the VRA. Having an Obama DOJ reviewing the lines this time "will make a big difference," Musselman said.

But will it, really? Some of Musselman's fellow panelists thought Dems shouldn't pin too much hope on it – because Republicans will immediately go to the courts. "I think what will happen is Republicans will say [the review process] is unfair," said Steve Bickerstaff, author of Lines in the Sand: Congressional Redistricting in Texas and the Downfall of Tom DeLay. "If [the GOP redistricting] is aggressive, you go to the court."

Bickerstaff said Republicans will try two new legal strategies this time: "One, I think there will be a challenge to constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act ... the constitutionality of Section 5," he said. The other: "With the concern over immigrants, there is a push to try to use citizen population, not total population, to draw districts." Currently, districts are balanced according to the count of all residents, whether they reside in the U.S. legally or not.

Ray Martinez, chief of staff for state Sen. Judith Zaffirini and an election law instructor at UT's LBJ School, agreed with Bickerstaff. "I just don't think people are really focusing on that," Martinez said. "A lot of Democrats feel like the saving grace will be the Obama civil rights division. I don't think that's true. ... Attorney General [Greg] Abbott can go the route of the courts. ... I just think that would make sense. If I were in their spot, that's the route I would want to take."

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