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Getting Away With a Blatant Gerrymander

June 16, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is the associate editor of The Times.

So even deals with the devil, it seems, are legally binding and will be enforced by the courts.

What else are Latinos to conclude in the wake of last week's ruling by a panel of three federal judges who dismissed a lawsuit that was designed to stop blatant racial gerrymandering against Latino voters in the most recent state redistricting plan?

The ruling itself, a 91-page tome by two U.S. District Court judges, Christina A. Snyder and Margaret M. Morrow, and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was not unreasonable.

The jurists pointed to the dramatic political progress Latinos have made in California in recent years, such as winning dozens of seats in Congress and the Legislature and nearly electing a Latino mayor in Los Angeles last year. They concluded that the three instances of gerrymandering cited in the lawsuit--an Assembly and congressional district in San Diego and a congressional seat in the San Fernando Valley--were not so severe that the entire state redistricting should be thrown out.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 24, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 9 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Gerrymandering--In Frank del Olmo's June 16 commentary, three instances of gerrymandering cited in a lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund were described incorrectly. The MALDEF suit challenged two congressional districts and one state Senate district.

Fair enough. But just how much discrimination against Latinos or any other significant bloc of voters should be tolerated before the courts step in and call a halt under provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act?

The judges didn't really answer that question, which is why attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are still weighing the possibility of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That would be a risky strategy, given the current makeup of the high court and especially the overt hostility of right-wing justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to civil rights cases.

Still, one is tempted to urge MALDEF to push this case along. At least that will keep some heat on those politicians, including many Latinos, who were willing to allow their own people to be treated as political pawns as long as they remained safe in Latino districts.

They are the lost souls in this case. Their personal ambitions led them to cut a deal with the devil, in the guise of Democratic political consultant Michael Berman. He was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by members of Congress and the Legislature to draw them safe new districts using the population data gathered in the 2000 census.

Redistricting is such an arcane process that Berman might have gotten away with his demographic sleights of hand except for one very big mistake. He could not resist helping out his older brother, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), by drawing him a super-safe district. He did that by shifting thousands of new Latino voters out of Howard Berman's East Valley district and into the adjacent district of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

It was a display of raw politics equaled only by the opportunism of the nine Latino members of the state Assembly and all seven Latinos in the state Senate who voted to approve the Berman plan. Only two Latino Assembly members--Democrats Lou Correa of Santa Ana and Sarah Reyes of Fresno, voted against the Berman plan. Democrat Juan Vargas of San Diego abstained rather than vote for it.

One reason I wish that the three federal judges had let MALDEF's lawsuit go to trial is that it would have forced some of the politicians who signed off on the Bermans' gerrymander to take the stand in court. Then, whether Anglo or Latino, they would have had to explain their logic and defend their actions under oath.

As it was, every effort MALDEF attorneys made in pretrial motions to shed light on the secret talks that led to the new legislative districts was fiercely opposed by lawyers for the Legislature. Did state legislators have something to hide? We may never know.

But let's not get too cynical here. Better instead to hope that as citizen-inspired reforms like term limits and tighter controls on campaign spending take effect, we will see fewer hacks with Spanish surnames elected to office and more honest, courageous officeholders like Vargas, Correa and Reyes.

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