The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld most of the pro-Republican Texas congressional map engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and freed all states to draw new political boundaries as often as they want.
The court, however, said that part of the new Texas map failed to protect minority voting rights, a small victory for Democratic and minority groups who accused Republicans of an unconstitutional power grab in drawing boundaries that booted four Democrats from office.
The ruling did not make clear whether or not lower courts or the state would have to change congressional district boundaries before the November elections.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority, said Hispanics do not have a chance to elect a candidate of their choosing in south and west Texas under the state's plan.
The plan's "troubling blend of politics and race - and the resulting vote dilution of a group that was beginning to achieve (the federal law's) goal of overcoming prior electoral discrimination - cannot be sustained," Kennedy wrote.
Some 100,000 Hispanics had been shifted out of a district represented by a Republican, and foes of the plan had argued it violated the Voting Rights Act which protects minority voting rights.
More broadly, Republicans picked up six Texas congressional seats two years ago, and the court's ruling does not seriously threaten those gains.
The court ruled 7-2 that state legislators may draw new congressional maps anytime - not just once a decade as Texas Democrats had claimed and has been traditional nationwide. That means any state's lawmakers can push through new maps anytime there is a power shift in the Legislature.
The Constitution says states must adjust their congressional district lines every 10 years to account for population shifts. In Texas the boundaries were redrawn twice after the 2000 census, first by a court, then by state lawmakers in a second round promoted by DeLay after Republicans took control.
That was acceptable, the justices said.
"Some people are predicting a rash of mid-decade redistricting. I am skeptical," said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School. "It would be seen as a power grab in a lot of places."
The contentious map drawing in Texas was done after Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, called lawmakers back for three special sessions in 2003. Democrats fled the state to halt the process. It also contributed to the downfall of DeLay.
DeLay was charged in state court with money laundering in connection with fundraising for legislative candidates. Although he is fighting the charges and maintains he is innocent, DeLay gave up his leadership post and then resigned from Congress.
The Supreme Court has struggled in the past to define how much politics is acceptable when states draw new boundaries. Two years ago, justices split 5-4 in leaving a narrow opening for challenges claiming party politics overly influenced election maps.
The court was also fractured Wednesday with six separate opinions, covering more than 120 pages, on the Texas boundaries.
The court's four most conservative members opposed the part of the decision that found a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Justice Antonin Scalia complained that the court should have shut the door on all claims of political gerrymandering in map drawing.
Justice John Paul Stevens took the opposite view.
"By taking an action for the sole purpose of advantaging Republicans and disadvantaging Democrats, the state of Texas violated its constitutional obligation to govern impartially," he wrote.
Kennedy's decision did not specify how quickly the lines of District 23 must be redrawn, but he said that more than one district would be affected.
"The districts in south and west Texas will have to be redrawn to remedy the violation in District 23, and we have no cause to pass on the legitimacy of a district that must be changed," he wrote.
District 23 is represented by Rep. Henry Bonilla (news, bio, voting record), a Republican, and takes in a huge swath of Texas under both the new plan and the court-drawn map that was replaced. The current district stretches from near El Paso to southwest Texas and hugs Texas western border with Mexico, taking in several border districts.
After Wednesday's ruling, Angela Hale, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general, said, "The timeline and the procedure for redrawing the only district requiring further action will be addressed by the three-judge federal district court at a hearing in the near future."
The League of United Latin American Citizens is prepared to go to court next week to present its redistricting plan to the district court, president Hector Flores said at the group's annual convention in Milwaukee. The decision was a victory for all underrepresented groups and gives hope that the face of Congress will change in the midterm elections, Flores said at a news conference.
"Latinos will register to vote and will vote in November," he said. "And we will change the map and we will change the beltway."