HOUSTON — Federal judges on Tuesday upheld election maps that Republicans drew last year to cement their control of Congress, extending the GOP's dominance in Texas.
Democrats had charged in a December trial that the maps disenfranchised minorities and rural communities. In a 127-page decision, a panel of three federal judges ruled that a coalition of Democrats, voting-rights advocates and minority leaders had "failed to prove" in a lawsuit that new congressional district maps violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
The judges, referring to the maps by their formal name, "Plan 1374C," made it clear that their opinion should be seen as a narrow interpretation of election law, not an endorsement of the maps. "We decide only the legality of Plan 1374C, not its wisdom," the judges said.
Election maps, the judges pointed out, have historically been drawn every 10 years, after completion of the census. The judges called on Congress to ban states from drawing new maps mid-decade -- an effort to dampen the effect of partisan politics on voting rights. "Whether the Texas Legislature has acted in the best interest of Texas is a judgment that belongs to the people," the judges wrote. "We are compelled to conclude that this plan was a political product from start to finish."
Democratic lawmakers twice went on strike last year to protest the efforts to draw new congressional districts. Democrats fled the Capitol in May and holed up at a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma. That prevented Republicans from establishing a quorum and, temporarily, from moving forward with the new maps. GOP leaders sent the Texas Rangers after the renegade Democrats, to no avail. State senators put together a second, similar protest in August.
Neither move, ultimately, was successful. Republicans said they pushed the new maps because it was unfair to their party -- and to voters -- that the majority of Texans voted for GOP candidates but did not have a majority-GOP representation in Congress.
Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said the judges' decision "validates the actions taken by the Texas Legislature."
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, an architect of the maps, said they will "establish fairer and more effective representation that reflects the demographics, values and voting patterns of Texas."
"The Democrats did everything in their power to try to deny the reality that Texas is a Republican state," he added.
Democrats and minority leaders reacted angrily to the ruling. They said that minority communities have been corralled together in awkward-looking districts, one of which snakes more than 200 miles between Austin and the U.S.-Mexico border. State Rep. Jim Dunnam, one of Texas' more prominent Democrats, said that if the decision stands, "you might as well tear up the Voting Rights Act."
The 1965 act, which prohibited states from imposing most restrictions on who could vote, was intended largely to support the civil rights of African Americans, but amendments were later added to support other minorities, including Latinos and Asians.
Democrats pledged an immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This is just the latest attempt by President Bush, Tom DeLay and other Republicans to dismantle the Voting Rights Act," said U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader. "The Texas redistricting plan shows once again that when Republicans cannot win elections fair and square, they rig the rules.... We will fight to the finish for Texas."
Barring intervention by the Supreme Court, the maps will be first used in the March primaries in Texas.
The state's congressional delegation is currently evenly split, 16-16, between Democrats and Republicans. By the end of the year, the new maps are expected to allow the GOP to take as many as seven seats away from Democrats.
The decision was written by two judges appointed to the federal bench by Republican presidents: Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, appointed by President Reagan; and U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
U.S. District Judge T. John Ward, an appointee of President Clinton, wrote a dissent to portions of the opinion, arguing, among other things, that the maps violate the voting rights of Texas Latinos.
The decision is the latest twist in a political war that has torn at the seams of Texas for a year, as Republicans worked tirelessly over three special legislative sessions to approve new congressional maps.
Republicans, long the minority party in Texas, now hold every statewide elected position, and control the governor's mansion, the state House and the state Senate for the first time in 130 years. The maps were designed to overcome their last political hurdle in the state -- winning a majority of the state's congressional seats.