I can't say it's a surprise, though it's certainly a disappointment, that the Justice Department gave its stamp of approval to the new Congressional map. They took their sweet time about it, and the Democrats have charged from the beginning that it was political appointees, rather than civil service employees, who were given the task, but in the end they did what I figured they would. The only surprise to me is that they released their decision on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time for the Bush administration to admit to bad news. Whatever else you might call this decision, it surely wasn't bad news from their perspective.
Coverage of the ruling and the predictable reactions from both sides of the battle is here, here, and here, while Byron has some quotes from the Quorum Report and the state Democratic Party press release. I'm going to quote from the DMN story, since it covers the main points of interest.
"The Department of Justice determined that the state of Texas provided sufficient proof that the proposed congressional districts do not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race or color," said Texas Secretary of State Geoff Conner, the state's top election official.
Democrats said that the decision showed the fix was in, that right-minded career lawyers in the Justice Department were rolled over by political appointees, intent on boosting the Republican advantage in Congress.
"It means the Voting Rights Section staff was not able to withstand the political pressure from the top," said Gerald Hebert, a former Voting Rights Section attorney and one of the lead lawyers challenging the remap.
The Justice Department's one-page ruling, which it issued after many consultations with Texans who objected to the map, cannot be appealed and was required under the federal Voting Rights Act before the map could be used in the March 9 primary.
The ruling means that Justice Department lawyers found the proposed map the GOP-led Legislature passed in October did not have the purpose – or the effect – of causing minority voting strength to backslide.
The plan still faces a federal court challenge by minority and Democratic groups, under a section of the Voting Rights Act that protects minority groups' right to elect their candidates of choice – a different standard than that used by the Justice Department.
"We still think we have a solid case in front of the court," Mr. Hebert said after the Justice Department decision. "You don't think it [the court] is going to be infected with the same sort of political influence."
After an eight-day trial, the three-judge panel hearing that case in Austin wrapped up the evidence and scheduled final arguments in the case for Tuesday.
Mr. Hebert, the Democrats' top lawyer, said an expert hired by the state, University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie, recently provided a huge boon to the Democrats' case when he said in a deposition that Mr. Frost's current 24th Congressional District gives blacks an effective voice in electing a candidate of their choice.
The federal law prohibits the breaking up of any current district that effectively "performs" for minorities, Mr. Hebert said. Under the new map, Mr. Frost's district is dismantled.
Democratic lawyers objected to the state's last-minute decision not to have Dr. Gaddie testify. But Judge Higginbotham allowed the Oklahoma professor's remarks and a report he prepared especially for the state to be introduced into evidence.
Andy Taylor, a Republican lawyer who is leading the state's defense of the map, declined to comment on whether Dr. Gaddie's assertions about Mr. Frost's district helped the map's opponents. He said Democrats have failed to prove their case, and the state felt no need to offer their expert or further evidence.