Mississippi's Congressional Battle Royale

  • Share
  • Read Later
Congressional redistricting, which happens every ten years with a new census count, is always a messy battle for Democrats and Republicans. Both parties maneuver intensely in the state legislatures and the governor's mansions and the courts to get the new lines drawn in ways that help their candidates. The reason? The payoff for congressional boundaries that help one party over the other can be tremendous. A congressional incumbent can enjoy ten years of freedom from challengers because his district is packed with voters from his party.

But with the almost evenly divided House up for grabs in November, the redistricting battle is getting even more bare-knuckled this time. Democrats have to switch only six seats to retake the House. So far, from the states that have completed the redistricting, there's been little net gain for either Republicans or Democrats. But some states have yet to settle on their lines and the political battles there are growing more intense.

Take Mississippi. Democrats are angrily accusing Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, of playing politics with the 1965 Voting Rights Act to get the congressional lines in Mississippi drawn to favor Republicans.

Last December, the Democratic-controlled Mississippi state government approved a redistricting plan that, of course, helped Democrats, particularly in the newly consolidated 4th District where Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows would have to face Republican Rep. Chip Pickering. (The two congressmen are running against each other because Mississippi's dwindling population resulted in the loss of one seat.) Pickering immediately cried foul, complaining that the plan was drawn up so that it would be "the most favorable to Democrats."

The Mississippi redistricting plan, however, had to be sent to the Justice Department, which under the Voting Rights Act must okay new lines because of Mississippi's past history of racial discrimination. Democrats charge that Justice then sat on the plan to give a panel of three Republican-appointed federal judges time to draw up its own redistricting proposal for the state which favors GOP candidates. "They're playing partisan politics with this," gripes Shows. The Justice Department denies it.

The federal judges ordered that their plan, which doesn't require Justice approval, go into effect last week. The Democrats appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of getting that order blocked. But it turns out that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia handles emergency appeals from Mississippi, which is convenient for the Republicans. Scalia personally swore in Chip Pickering as a congressman in 1997 and is a friend of the congressman's father, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pickering, whose nomination to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is snarled in the Senate. Democrats again cried foul and tried, unsuccessfully, to get another Supreme Court Justice to block the federal judges' plan. The Dems are now trying to convince the full court to overrule Scalia. Count on this battle to go the full fifteen rounds.