Thursday, March 02, 2006

SCOTUS Redistricting Roundup

I promised yesterday that I'd put up links to the coverage of the Supreme Court's arguments in the consolidated challenges to the 2003 Texas redistricting scheme, so here goes. I have to say at the outset that from the excerpts in the media (the full transcript is not yet available), it doesn't appear very likely that the justices are going to issue a positive ruling, which will throw the ball back in our court to effect change.

First the links. In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank devotes his "Washington Sketch" to the arguments while Charles Lane provides the straight run-down. Linda Greenhouse has the story for the New York Times, and Charles Savage does the honors for the LA Times. Dahlia Lithwick dispatches for Slate. Allen Pusey and Todd Gillman cover the arguments for the Dallas Morning News.

Each of the articles makes clear the general unease expressed by the justices in wading into the redistricting process: Pusey and Gillman describe their attitude as "palpably cool to the much-anticipated argument that a 2003 map of congressional districts approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature amounted to 'excessively' partisan politics." At the same time, however, at least a majority of the justices did express concerns that one aspect of the redistricting plan may have disenfranchised black and Hispanic voters: Justice Kennedy commented "It seems to me that is an affront and an insult."

The justices seemed to indicate that at least a majority of them believe that partisan redistricting is perfectly acceptable. Justice Ginsburg responded to an argument by those appealing the Texas plan by saying "I thought a plan drafted by the state legislature replaced a plan that had been drafted by a court?", and Justice Souter added "The difficulty I have is that it is impossible, and let's even assume it's undesirable, to take partisanship out of a political process." He added that if appellants used pure partisanship as a basis for challenging redistricting plans, "I don't see why that does not imply the illegitimacy of any redistricting at any time."

Without seeing the context it's hard to understand why Justice Souter would express the view that taking partisanship out of redistricting is "undesirable," and I'll certainly be interested to see how that fits into the full transcript once it's released.

Justice Scalia, not surprisingly, was the most skeptical to the arguments of those opposed to the Texas plan: at one point he retorted "Legislatures redraw maps all the time for political reasons. To say it's something horrible is ridiculous." He added that mid-decade redistricting ought to be permitted if the first redistricting plan after a census had been constructed by a court. Of court-drawn districts, Scalia said at one point that "it's a shame for the democratic process that there are districts that have never been drawn by the people."

This argument from Scalia is positively specious. "The people" haven't drawn up a congressional district since goodness knows when; if Justice Scalia believes that today's gerrymandered-to-death congressional districts were drawn by anyone other than self-interested politicians looking to maximize their reelection margins year after year, I've got a bridge to sell him. While of course I'd rather not have serving judges draw up district lines either, to suggest that they redistrict less fairly or equitably than legislators seems totally ridiculous.

While Milbank's sketch is largely concerned with Justice Ginsburg's unfortunate 15-minute nap during the two-hour argument and the lack of real-time transcripts or video/audio coverage of Court arguments, he does make a good point about the important nature of the case in question: the American people "could have benefited from a glimpse of the high court's proceedings. Yesterday's case on Texas redistricting was about crucial matters: the fate of minority voting rights; the principle of one man, one vote; the balance of power in the House of Representatives; and political gerrymandering that protects 98 percent of incumbents in both parties from challengers."

Once the transcript comes out next week I'll read it over and probably have some more musings once I've seen things in context. Even then, of course, it's impossible to tell for sure how justices will vote based on their statements at yesterday's session. But it doesn't seem likely that the justices will decide that redistricting can be too partisan ... which just means that we - yes, "the people" - have to dedicate ourselves more strongly to reforming the process at the ballot box. Let's get to it.

[Update: Writing at Poliblog, Dr. Steven Taylor has a good post on the redistricting case, partially in response to this one. Check it out. -- 10:59 a.m.]


At 10:25 AM, Blogger Steven Taylor said...

In re: Scalia, it is the case that legislature is closer to "the people" than are the courts. However, I take your general point.

The problem here is that while I agree that partisan gerrymandering is a problem, reversing the current Texas map doesn't take partisanship out of the process, as it simply reverts to a map that was drawn primarily to Democratic advantage (as the court map was largely based on districts drawn by the Texas State Legislature when the Democrats dominated the process).

Unless the Court were to impose a radical change on the way we draw districts (which they aren't going to do), then I don't see this case as really having any substantial effect on this process or problem.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger JBD said...

Steven, it's certainly true that the legislature is theoretically closer to "the people" than the courts. But when it comes to drawing district lines, we just plain can't trust them to do the "right thing." Which is why I support having redistricting decisions made by panels of retired legislators, retired judges or regular citizens, who don't have the same horses in the race as legislators do.

You're certainly right about the reversal of the TX map, and I agree that the Court seems (very) unlikely to lay down any key changes - hence the need for us to keep working on it. In the long run, I think you've hit it spot on - this case in the end won't be particularly effectual in any way.

At 11:15 AM, Anonymous jim said...

Its really to bad it won't have any effect. Down here in TX the republicans have done a bang up job since gaining power... and when I say bang up job, I mean they have hammered our state into pieces. Education..bad, highway/transportation...bad, illelgal immigration..out of control, lawsuit reform..failure. I'll be happy to have them in power a few more years, then maybe the idiots will wake up and realize the nimrods they voted in could give a rats patootie about them.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Steven Taylor said...


Ultimately we are in agreement: I would prefer to see the line-drawing done in a different manner.

At 10:40 PM, Blogger Craig R. said...

Lets not forget that one of the reasons that this case is before the U.S. Supeme Court is that Texas is one of the states that are specifically required to submit all changes in voting procedures and districting to the DOJ for approval.

And the panel that was tasked with doing the review recommended that the changes as drafted by the legislature *not* be approved, but were overridden by the Bush-appointed higher-ups.

See "DeLay's Redistricting Master Stroke illegal?"

At 11:52 PM, Blogger JBD said...

Craig, quite so; thanks for adding the reminder.


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