Justice Dept. lawyers found DeLay plan cut minority voting power
AG defends decision by agency officials to back it anyway
WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales defended the Justice Department's decision to ignore staff lawyers' concerns that a Texas redistricting plan orchestrated by former House majority leader Tom DeLay would dilute minority voting rights.
A Justice Department memo released yesterday showed that agency staff members unanimously objected to the Texas plan, which DeLay pushed through the Legislature to help elect more Republicans to the US House.
Senior agency officials, appointed by President Bush, brushed aside concerns about the possible impact on minority voting and approved the new districts for the 2004 elections.
Gonzales, who was not attorney general when the agency reviewed the redistricting plan, said that it was approved by people ''confirmed by the Senate to exercise their own independent judgment" and that their disagreement with other agency employees doesn't mean the final decision was wrong.
The decision appears to have been correct, Gonzales said, because a three-judge federal panel upheld the plan and Texas has since elected one additional black congressman.
Of the state's 32 House seats, Republicans held 15 before the 2004 elections. Under the DeLay-backed plan, Republicans were elected to 21. Six members of the Texas delegation are Hispanic (one of them a Republican), and three are black (all Democrats).
The redistricting plan has been challenged in court by Democrats and minority voting groups contending it was unconstitutional and that district boundaries had been illegally manipulated to give one party an unfair advantage. The Supreme Court is considering whether to review the case.
The memo released yesterday had been sought by lawsuit plaintiffs before going to court, but the Justice Department declined to surrender it then.
''The Supreme Court is our last hope for rectifying this gross injustice. We couldn't count on the [lower] court. We couldn't count on the state, and we obviously couldn't count on the politically corrupt Justice Department," said Gerry Hebert, a lawyer representing the challengers.
Because of historic discrimination against minority voters, Texas is required under provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get Justice Department approval for any voting changes it makes to ensure the changes don't undercut minority voting.
''The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect," Justice Department officials said in the memo made public by the Lone Star Project, a Democratic group.
Eight department staff members objected to the redistricting map, according to the memo, which was first reported yesterday by The
The Justice Department said Sheldon Bradshaw, then principal deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, made the final decision in the case.
Hebert said that when a case is a close call, staff lawyers usually include counterpoints to their conclusions in their memo. But he said there is nothing in the 73-page memo suggesting a plausible reason for approving the map.
''All decisions made by the Justice Department involve thoughtful rigorous analysis of the law," said spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.