Supreme Court Wrestles With Partisan Politics

March 1, 2006 — -- The Supreme Court today wrestled with the role partisan politics plays in drawing congressional district maps.

At issue is a Texas congressional redistricting plan engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which helped Republicans gain six congressional seats in the 2004 election. Democrats and minority voting groups have challenged the map, saying it is unconstitutional and was unfairly drawn in a rare mid-decade reapportionment soon after Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature.

In court today, Paul Smith, a lawyer representing one of the groups challenging the plan, was peppered with questions from several skeptical justices. Smith said the plan was "passed only for one reason": to "maximize Republican representation."

Justice Antonin Scalia, reacting sarcastically to Smith's argument responded, "Wow, that's a surprise." Later, Scalia said, "Legislators redraw the map all the time for political purposes."

At one point Justice David Souter added, "It's impossible to take partisanship out of the political process."

Minorities Pushed Out?

However, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who holds a key swing vote on the issue, seemed concerned by complaints from Latino groups who said they'd been pushed out of a district to affect the majority.

Kennedy said such actions would be "an affront" and "an insult."

R. Ted Cruz, the Texas solicitor general, argued in favor of the plan, emphasizing that it was legal for legislators to draw such maps, and that their fate should not be left to the courts.

In 2003, the redistricting plan caused such furor in Texas that at one point Democratic legislators fled the state to deny the Republicans a necessary quorum. According to published reports, some Justice Department officials believed the plan was unconstitutional but were later overruled by their superiors. Today in court, the Bush administration joined Texas in support of the plan.

In 2004, the high court visited the issue of political gerrymandering in Veith vs. Jubelirer, narrowly upholding a Republican redistricting plan. While all eyes today were on Kennedy, who was the swing vote on Veith v. Jubelirer, court watchers are sure to zero in on Bush's two most recent nominees to the court -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.