WASHINGTON — In a victory for Democrats, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered a lower court to reconsider a controversial Texas congressional redistricting plan, throwing the shape of the state's 2006 elections into doubt.
The court's action will not affect next month's elections, but any Republican gains on Nov. 2 could be undone in the future if the redistricting plan is found unconstitutional.
The justices ordered a special three-judge federal court to reconsider its earlier approval of the plan and to take into account the high court's ruling in April that upheld a Pennsylvania redistricting case. The justices did not elaborate further, leaving their intentions vague.
The new Texas congressional district plan signed last year by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, puts the GOP in a strong position to dominate the state's congressional delegation in the 2004 elections and beyond.
With the new plan in place for the Nov. 2 election, Republicans hope to add as many as six seats to the 16 Texas seats they currently control, with the Democrats falling from 16 seats to 10.
With the current House makeup of 229 Republicans and 204 Democrats — with one independent who usually votes with Democrats and one vacancy — the additional Republican seats could further strengthen GOP control of the chamber, depending on the outcome of other House elections next month.
Democrats and minority groups challenged the redistricting plan, which had been strongly supported by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House Republican leader. The challengers argued that it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and that it diluted the voting strength of minorities.
In April, a deeply divided Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania redistricting plan designed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature that sought to give the Republican Party an edge in the state's 19 congressional seats.
A five-justice majority ruled that there is no objective way to determine whether the 2002 Pennsylvania redistricting plan was so unduly influenced by politics that it denied Democrats their constitutional right of equal treatment under state law.
However, the court refused to close the door on court challenges to such partisan gerrymandering in future cases.
"I would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.
The court said Monday that the Texas map should be viewed again, in light of that decision.
Although the high court's cryptic announcement provided scant evidence of what outcome the justices would deem acceptable, Paul Smith, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., but representing Democratic voters in Texas, said the court's decision showed the justices were "concerned" about the Republican plan.
Smith said the lower court had four options:
Approve the GOP plan for a second time, leaving the current map in place.
Create a new plan that would be subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ask the state Legislature to redraw the map.
Order the state to use a 2002 map drawn by a federal court.
Smith noted that three of the options would lead to new congressional districts in the 2006 elections.
"Right now, there's no way to say what the state's congressional map will look like in two years," he said.
The 2002 map was drawn by a three-judge federal panel — two Republicans and a Democrat — after the legislature failed to adopt a congressional redistricting plan following the decennial U.S. Census, which gave Texas two additional congressional seats.
The judges said their plan was designed to protect incumbents of both parties. The U.S. Supreme Court approved the map.
But DeLay and other Republicans insisted that the state legislature — now dominated by Republicans — make another effort at drawing a new map. They pointed out that despite controlling both chambers of the state Legislature and holding every statewide political office, Republicans held only 16 of the 32 congressional seats in Texas.
Democrats and minority leaders challenged that map, arguing that the redistricting should have taken place right after the last U.S. Census in 2000, and not three years later. They contend that the action violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by diluting the influence of minority voters.
But last year, the special three-judge federal panel in Austin ruled that there was no bar to such late redistricting, even though redistricting normally occurs after the decennial census.
They also found that politics — not racial discrimination — prompted the redrawing of district lines.
That led to the map that the justices commented on Monday.
The Supreme Court also Monday:
Agreed to review an appeal by Missouri death row inmate Carman Deck, who claims his constitutional rights were violated because he was kept shackled and handcuffed to a belly chain in front of jurors.
Refused to consider whether former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was wrongly barred from raising new arguments in challenging his 1998 conviction for tax conspiracy.
Declined to resurrect a lawsuit by three California women who say Planned Parenthood withholds information linking abortions to breast cancer.
Refused to consider if employees of floating casinos are entitled to the same injury rights as seamen. The issue was raised by workers exposed to chemicals in 2000 on a casino on the Ohio River near Metropolis, Ill.
Declined to consider an appeal in Mississippi's college desegregation case by black plaintiffs who wanted to opt out of a proposed 2002 settlement that guarantees the state's three historically black state universities $503 million.
Refused to review the appeal of Arthur Hastings Wise, who is on South Carolina's death row for killing four co-workers at a lawnmower ignition plant in 1997.
Let stand a state ruling that says Ohio lawyer Beth Lewis must disclose what a now-dead client told her about a 9-year-old girl's disappearance. Investigators want to know what Lewis' client Jan Franks said to her about Erica Baker, who vanished in 1999.
Contributing: Associated Press