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As we dance to the redistricting map tango

There’s a certain karma in having the DeLay ballot replacement ruling be handed down by one federal appeals court on the same day that another such court was hearing about proposed remedies to the state’s unconstitutional Congressional map. One theme seems to have stood out from yesterday’s arguments: The court appears to be reluctant to screw any incumbents more than they absolutely have to.

The state’s congressional map could be fixed without pairing incumbents or eliminating U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s Travis County base, a federal judge suggested today.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Higginbotham, the presiding judge on a three-judge panel, made the suggestion as he grilled the state’s attorney at a redistricting hearing this morning in a packed Austin courtroom.

[…]

Higginbotham seemed to suggest his thinking – if not the panel’s – on the matter.

He suggested redrawing Doggett’s existing district, which runs from Austin to the Mexico border, to contain more of Travis County. He then suggested making Webb County the political base for a South Texas district represented by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

“Why should a Latino community have to come to Austin?” Higginbotham asked.

He said Bonilla’s district could pick up more voters – both Republican and Democratic – from San Antonio.

Higginbotham pointedly asked [Solicitor General Ted] Cruz about the state’s plan to eliminate Doggett’s political base in Travis County.

“Why is that necessary?” he asked.

Cruz defended it, saying the state was trying to make the districts more compact.

Cruz, of course, had argued against eviscerating Bonilla’s district on the grounds that the Court should “cure a violation in (District) 23 and, other than that, like a physician, do no harm.” That he wouldn’t extend that logic to Lloyd Doggett in the not-violating-the-Constitution District 25 is not a surprise, but it’s still nice to see him get called on this little paradox.

I’ve said all along that I believe the Court will take a minimalist view of their task, and that the one principle that I believe they will strive to adhere to is incumbent protection. It’s one thing to rail against legislatures for engaging in all kinds of backscratching for the purposes of protecting their own, but I think it’s a lot to ask three judges, with a gun to their heads, to sanction the elimination or at least the jeopardizing of a duly elected representative, even if that election occurred in a district that shouldn’t have been. I believe that they will see any such maneuvers as the Lege’s job and not theirs, and as such I believe they will hand back a map that does not pair up any incumbents. What may happen in 2008 and beyond, with or without further tinkering in Austin, is another story, but for 2006 I will be very surprised if Bonilla, Cuellar, and Doggett are not all heavy favorites to go back to Washington. We shall see.

And for what it’s worth, Paul Burka reads Judge Higginbotham’s comments in the same way as I do, and follows it to the conclusion that the panel already has a complete, incumbent-protecting plan in mind. The best part is we ought not to be kept in suspense for long.

UPDATE: Rep. Pena adds his thoughts.

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One Comment

  1. Nathaniel says:

    So the court will submit its own plan. Sounds like it will resemble the LULAC Plan A, except Doggett will get a Travis County-based seat instead of the fajita district, and there will obviously be less deviation between district population.

    So…

    Bonilla picks up South San Antonio Hispanics to get a more competitive district, with Cuellar taking all of Webb County and getting a South Texas district, while Doggett goes back to an Austin base. But what about those South Texas areas that were Doggett territory? They can’t all go to Cuellar, so does that mean Hinojosa’s seat gets modified as well? And if so, does Ortiz get messed with too?

    What a tangled webb we weave. (Parden the pun)