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Texas massacre

FOR THE SECOND TIME this week, a splintered US Supreme Court yesterday made America a little more partisan, a little less democratic.

Taking on the Texas redistricting case, the justices scattered like water bugs, producing five different opinions. A majority acknowledged the obvious: Republicans, pushed by US Representative Tom DeLay, capitalized on their new majorities in the Texas Legislature in 2003 to redraw the lines of the state's 32 congressional districts with one goal in mind: to increase the number of Republicans in the US House. They knew what they were doing; in the 2004 election, the GOP membership in the delegation grew by six seats.

The court yesterday agreed that the motive was purely political, and that the Republican mapmakers had drawn several long, narrow districts that look like bent straws to achieve their aims, making a mockery of the compactness that is a recognized goal of redistricting.

Even so, most of the justices threw up their hands. They were staring at one of the most heavy-handed political power grabs in the history of Congress, but they said they couldn't figure out a standard by which to declare it an unconstitutional political gerrymander.

First, the court said it could not bar a mid-decade redistricting. This may be the proper ruling; as Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the controlling opinion, there is no specific constitutional prohibition. Still, it is disappointing, as it will surely encourage partisans in other states to redistrict in purely political fashion whenever they have the power.

But the core of the case was the justices' weak-kneed refusal to call a halt when politics runs amok. Kennedy wrote with deference of ``a legislature's expertise" in redistricting. But on Monday the court dismissed the local wisdom of Vermont legislators in passing campaign finance reform.

Even Justice Antonin Scalia properly skewered his colleagues, saying they had two choices: to throw out the case -- which he made clear he would have done -- ``or else [to] set forth a standard and measure appellant's claim against it."

The majority's insistence that some level of political gerrymandering might be unconstitutional is rendered meaningless by the court's failure to act in this case. The lesson is that extreme partisans have nothing to fear from a court that lacks spine, and direction. And the certain result will be still fewer contested elections, and more alienated voters.

In a lower court, meanwhile, DeLay is under indictment for funneling money illegally to the Texas legislative races, raising the possibility that Republicans won their majorities unfairly and never should have been in a position to redraw the congressional districts. The outrage is obvious. But even if it is proven, don't expect this Supreme Court to act.

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