WASHINGTON — A fractured Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that states are free to redraw congressional districts whenever they want, largely blessing Tom DeLay’s bitterly contested handiwork in Texas and the gains it gave national Republicans.
With Justice Anthony M. Kennedy playing the role of majority maker, the court ruled the 2003 Texas plan violated the rights of Hispanics in the area around Laredo and ordered a lower court to review that part of the case.
But the justices imposed no timetable, and it was not clear whether Democrats would be able to win any changes in the Republican-drafted plan before the November elections.
Additionally, the justices rejected a claim that Texas Republicans had violated the rights of black voters by breaking up a congressional district in the area around Fort Worth.
And they ruled more broadly that the Constitution does not bar states from redrawing political lines when one party or the other senses an advantage.
“With respect to a mid-decade redistricting to change districts drawn earlier in conformance with a decennial census, the Constitution and Congress state no explicit prohibition,” Kennedy wrote.
Only 2 claim excessive partisanship
The case prompted six of the court’s nine justices to issue opinions. Kennedy’s was the pivotal one, though.
Only two justices, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, said the mid-decade redistricting showed that the Texas lawmakers were guilty of excessive partisanship.
Video: Russert on politics “By taking an action for the sole purpose of advantaging Republicans and disadvantaging Democrats, the state of Texas violated its constitutional obligation to govern impartially,” Stevens wrote in dissent.
The rulings on the challenges to the rights of Hispanics and blacks were narrower, 5-4, Kennedy in the majority on each.
Angela Hale, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general, said, “The timeline and the procedure for redrawing the only district requiring further action will be addressed by the three-judge federal district court at a hearing in the near future.”
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Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the organization was prepared to go to court next week to press its claim that the Texas redistricting violated the voting rights of Hispanics.
Long-term consequences unclear
If the ruling’s impact on the 2006 elections was unclear, so, too, the longer-term consequences.
The ruling freed states to readjust the lines more frequently — potentially whenever political power shifts — so long as they do not run afoul of the Voting Rights Act or other laws designed to protect the right to vote.
Even so, Richard Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School, said he doubted there would be a rush to change. “Some people are predicting a rash of mid-decade redistricting. I am skeptical,” he said.
With the House narrowly divided, both parties have shown interest in following the lead set by the GOP in Texas.
Republicans pushed through a redistricting in Georgia after the 2004 election. The result was a new set of political boundaries designed to protect Rep. Phil Gingrey from a Democratic challenge while increasing the chances for GOP opponents to Democratic Reps. John Barrow and Jim Marshall.
Democratic strategists in Congress pressed for new district lines in three states after the last election. None of the efforts came to fruition, though. Officials said Wednesday that Democratic governors balked in all three states.
The result is that the congressional boundaries in those states are unchanged, a disappointment for Democrats hoping to increase the number of competitive seats this fall as they try to overthrow the Republican majority.
DeLay embroiled in controversy
The court’s ruling came in a case in which Texas Republicans embraced controversy at the prodding of DeLay. When they gained control of the state House of Representatives in 2002, he drafted a plan that the GOP eventually pushed through the Legislature.
The result was a gain of several seats for Republicans in 2004. The GOP now has 21 seats in Texas to 11 for the Democrats. Democrats had a 17-15 majority before the shift.
DeLay paid an enormous price. He was indicted on state charges in connection with alleged money-laundering during the 2002 campaign for legislative seats, stepped down as majority leader in the House of Representatives, and eventually resigned this month from Congress.
The ruling that the rights of Hispanic voters had been violated revolved around a newly created district near Laredo, drawn to protect the political future of Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla.
‘No obvious benchmark exists’
Kennedy ruled that the impact was to deny Hispanic voters the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choosing in south and west Texas.
The plan’s “troubling blend of politics and race — and the resulting vote dilution of a group that was beginning to achieve (a) goal of overcoming prior electoral discrimination — cannot be sustained,” he wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts, participating in his first major voting rights case, rejected that. “The state has drawn a redistricting plan that provides six of seven congressional districts with an effective majority of Latino voting-age citizens in south and west Texas, and it is not possible to provide more,” he said.
Kennedy reached the opposite conclusion with respect to black voters in an area around Fort Worth. Rep. Martin Frost, the area’s former Democratic congressman, is white, and Kennedy wrote that since there had been no competitive primary for 20 years, “no obvious benchmark exists for deciding whether African-Americans could elect their candidate of choice.”
“The fact that African-Americans voted for Frost — in the primary and general elections — could signify he is their candidate of choice,” Kennedy wrote.
NBC News contributed to this report.