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Published: Wednesday, 7/12/2006

A boost for gerrymanders

IN A dismaying ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to say that the 2003 congressional redistricting pushed by former House Majority Leader Tom Delay in Texas was so blatantly partisan that it offended the Constitution. The court also gave its blessing to the idea that states don't have to wait for a new census to change political boundaries.

Although the court has held in the past that gerrymandering can be unconstitutional if too excessive, the standard of just what's acceptable has never been defined. So the grubby art of the gerrymander endures and flourishes.

It has, of course, a long history in these United States. The very term came about by grafting the name of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry to the word salamander, since political opponents said the district he created in 1812 looked like one.

What occurred in Texas had a reptilian aspect, too, but only two justices, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, declared the obvious: that in its mid-decade redistricting Texas violated its constitutional obligation to govern impartially.

The divided court did serve a warning that gerrymanders must still be sensitive to racial considerations. It held that the Texas legislature violated the Voting Rights Act by moving 100,000 Mexican Americans out of a Laredo district in order to help a Republican incumbent.

Supporters of Mr. DeLay, who resigned from Congress after criminal charges related to his redistricting efforts were brought, will see in this decision some vindication. To be fair to him, what he did was payback for what Democrats had previously done in Texas; he just took it to a new level.

Both parties play the game. What works for Republicans in Texas may work for Democrats somewhere else; party interests win but the public interest served by competitive races loses. Without such races, political accountability is a doomed cause.

And now that the Supreme Court has approved mid-decade redistricting, a new period of confusion could ensue, with voters bounced between districts every time a state government changes.

Far better would be a nonpartisan panel of judges or civil servants which would set political boundaries according to sensible criteria that did not include political advantage. Nonpartisan officials - not party hacks - would be in charge of elections.

It would be much more patriotic than, say, an anti-flag burning amendment - because it would help America deal with a real problem that threatens to get worse.



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