Federal panel rejects Democrats' lawsuit in Texas redistricting

Saturday, September 13, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas -- A three-judge federal appeals panel on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Democrats in the Texas Senate who had hoped to derail a new round of Republican-led congressional redistricting. The Democrats said they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

They had argued that Senate rule changes by Republicans to further their redistricting effort violated federal law. The judges,listened to two hours of arguments Thursday.

Democrats have a 17-15 majority in the current congressional delegation in Washington, and the GOP is pushing plans that would give Republicans as many as 21 seats.

Republicans said the decision reinforced their belief that the legislature, not the courts, should decide redistricting.

Eleven Democratic senators fled to New Mexico on July 28, shortly before Republican Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back for a second special legislative session to deal with redistricting. The senators went across the state line so Texas law officers could not arrest them and force them back to the Capitol.

The boycott brought the Senate to a standstill because not enough senators in the 31-member chamber were present to make a quorum, killing the redistricting effort.

But after the session ended, one of the Democrats, Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, defected from the group and returned to Texas, saying he would attend the next special session -- set to start Monday.

The remaining Democrats returned to Texas this week to attend the hearing on their lawsuit.

In court Thursday, judges closely questioned the Democrats' attorney, Paul Smith, who argued that dropping a Senate rule requiring two-thirds of the 31 members to agree to debate a bill violated the federal Voting Rights Act, enacted to protect minority voters.

The court withheld a decision on a complaint of threats to arrest Democrats and require them to pay fees for their failure to appear at the second special session.

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