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Texas Redistrict Plan Gets Hearing

September 12, 2003|From Associated Press

LAREDO, Texas — Democratic state lawmakers told a federal appeals court panel Thursday that the Republicans in the Legislature have violated the Voting Rights Act with their push to redraw Texas' congressional districts.

The three-judge panel did not immediately issue a ruling, but the jurists made it clear that they were reluctant to step into a summer-long political battle that included 11 Democratic senators fleeing the state to thwart GOP redistricting efforts. The Democrats returned from their six-week exile this week.

"We have a duty as a federal court to walk gingerly into state issues," U.S. District Judge George Kazen said. The panel could rule as early as today.

The GOP wants to redraw political lines to increase the number of Republicans in Congress. Democrats call the redistricting a right-wing power grab and say it would hurt minority representation in Congress.

They fended off the change in the regular legislative session earlier this year and two special sessions this summer. A third session is set to begin Monday.

The Democrats' attorney, Paul Smith, argued that Republicans violated the federal Voting Rights Act -- designed to protect minority voters -- when they dropped a Senate rule requiring two-thirds of the 31 members to debate a bill.

"This is a very significant piece of how the Legislature operates," Smith said of the long-standing rule.

The elimination of the rule would have allowed the GOP to take up the redistricting issue without the Democrats, but their walkout denied the state Senate a quorum. Last week, Sen. John Whitmire of Houston broke ranks and returned to Austin, saying he hoped to bring both parties together to resolve the issue.

Some of the senators expressed bitterness Thursday toward Whitmire.

The appeals panel seemed comfortable with an argument by state Solicitor General Ted Cruz, representing Republican officials, that the Democrats were in court too soon because no redistricting has taken place.

"There has been no clear action. Nothing has been done yet," Cruz said. "At this point, the Legislature is arguing back and forth about what it might do."

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