WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court waded into the thicket of Texas politics yesterday, agreeing to review controversial redistricting that produced ballot box gains for Republicans but an ethics rebuke and criminal charges for GOP Representative Tom DeLay.
The justices had seemed to leave scant room in 2004 for the type of challenge raised by Texas Democrats and their allies in yesterday's case, but the high court is undergoing transition now.
Democrats claimed optimism following the announcement that the justices had agreed to hear arguments. ''Today's Supreme Court action agreeing to take up the Texas case on Tom DeLay's illegal redistricting scheme is a hopeful sign that the voting rights of millions of minorities will be restored," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott countered: ''After hearing the case, we expect the court will agree with the unanimous judgment of the three-judge federal court that the Texas redistricting plan is wholly constitutional."
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said, ''The effort to deliver a new congressional map was founded in the belief that a history of gerrymandering efforts by Democrats in Texas had resulted in an unfair representation of Texas voters."
For all the legal and constitutional claims involved, the controversy is political at its core. DeLay and his allies helped elect a Republican majority to the Texas Legislature in 2002, then pushed for new congressional district lines in an unusual middecade reapportionment. The adjustment in congressional district boundaries was completed in 2003. The plan coincided with a Republican gain of six House seats between the 2002 and 2004 elections. The GOP now represents 21 of the state's 32 House districts.
Legal critics include Democrats, local governments, and organizations representing Hispanics and blacks. They allege that in redrawing the state's congressional district boundaries three years after the 2000 census, the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored population changes that had occurred in the meantime, running afoul of one-man, one-vote requirements. Opponents also say the Legislature acted purely for partisan gain when it threw out the district boundaries that had been used in the 2002 elections.
In addition, they argue that the congressional district boundaries used in the 2004 elections diluted the voting strength of Hispanic and black Texans, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The justices issued their brief announcement less than two weeks after the disclosure that the DeLay-engineered plan had been allowed to take effect when political appointees at the Justice Department overruled the objections of career attorneys. Defenders of the Texas redistricting counter that the state now has nine black or Hispanic lawmakers, up from eight in 2004.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion in 2004, upheld a Republican-drawn redistricting plan for Pennsylvania on a vote of 5 to 4. Lawyers who monitor such cases said at the time it appeared to leave little room for similar Democratic challenges in Texas and elsewhere.
William Rehnquist, then chief justice, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Clarence Thomas appeared to signal that they would not intervene in any cases involving redistricting done for partisan reasons.
Justice Anthony Kennedy provided a fifth vote for the majority, saying at the time that the Constitution might provide an avenue for relief in some, yet to be defined, circumstances. Of the justices who rejected the appeal in the Pennsylvania case, Rehnquist has died, and was succeeded by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. O'Connor has announced her retirement, and Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination to replace her is pending.
Paul M. Smith, a Washington lawyer who was on the losing side of the Pennsylvania case, said the facts of the Texas case might make a difference at the court. He said that because the Pennsylvania district lines were drawn quickly after the census was taken, ''One of the things you couldn't say in that case was their only reason was partisan. . . .
''Here we have a trial in which the state conceded that the only reason they did the case at all was partisan," added Smith, who is also involved in the legal attack on the Texas redistricting plan. Whatever the legal arguments, the day's development marked the latest installment in a long-running political and legal drama.
DeLay had to step down as House majority leader earlier this year after he was indicted in Texas on state money laundering charges. DeLay and two co-defendants are accused of funneling prohibited corporate political money through the Republican Party in Washington to Republican candidates for the Legislature. Texas law prohibits spending corporate money on the election or defeat of a candidate.
Apart from the legal case, the House ethics committee rebuked DeLay in 2004 for using the Federal Aviation Administration to track down a private plane that shuttled some Democratic lawmakers out of state.