REDISTRICTING Maps may land in court first Experts: GOP talks of sidestepping U.S. Justice Department. Others say rejection worry not worth cost.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA) -June 27, 2011
Author: Aaron Gould Sheinin

Georgia Republicans might bypass the Obama Justice Department and go straight to court after they draw new legislative maps this summer.

The General Assembly is expected to reconvene in August to consider new district lines for the state's 180 state House districts, 56 Senate districts and 14 congressional seats. The maps are based on detailed population counts from the 2010 census, the every-10-years process of counting the nation's residents. The census showed Georgia had grown enough to gain one U.S. House seat.

The once-a-decade redrawing of the state's election map determines which political party dominates and directly impacts representation for tens of thousands of Georgians who will find themselves with new state representatives, senators or members of Congress. With the state gaining a new seat in the U.S. House, more federal dollars could also flow to the state for projects and programs funded by district.

But Georgia is one of nine states that must get any change to voting or election law approved by the federal government, as required by the Voting Rights Act. The law says the state may petition either the Justice Department or the federal court for approval, although it's far more typical to start with the DOJ, which can issue a ruling in as little as 60 days.

Republican political consultant Joel McElhannon, a confidante of many GOP officials, says a consensus is building among Georgia Republicans that going to court is the best option.

"This is the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed [in 1965] that a Democrat[ic] Administration has been in charge during a redistricting process," McElhannon said. "No one knows for sure what to expect out of the Obama Justice Department."

McElhannon, who said he is only speaking for himself, not for the state party or its leaders, said many in the Georgia GOP think the Justice Department under President Barack Obama could seek to punish Georgia Republicans by rejecting its proposed maps.

Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist and former Republican consultant, also thinks the GOP could go straight to court.

"I'm sure they are," he said, "because I think from their point of view that gives them the best chance. Whether that's true or not, that's how they're looking at it, from everything I hear and people I speak to."

Redistricting routinely ends in a protracted court fight, and many on both sides are carefully considering their public comments out of fear their words could end up as evidence in court. Thus, state leaders are not ready to publicly commit to a path for approval.

"It's not an issue we have a position on at this point in time," said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal.

Deal must call lawmakers back into special session to handle redistricting. While he has not officially issued that call, he has told lawmakers to prepare to return Aug. 15.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who will preside over the special session in the Senate, noted that Georgia has chosen to go straight to court before.

"Other states have tried the same thing," Cagle said.

As for the House, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was likewise noncommittal.

"That's one of the options out there," Ralston said. "I don't think that decision has been made either."

Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican who must submit the new maps for approval, refused to comment.

When last the state went through this process, in 2001, Democrats controlled the state House, Senate and governor's office, and a Republican was in the White House. Today, those party affiliations are swapped.

In 2001, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker went straight to court, bypassing the Bush Justice Department. But going directly to court means the state had to sue the Justice Department, meaning Justice Department lawyers reviewed the state's maps anyway.

Those lawyers told the court they saw no problem with the proposed state House and congressional maps. But they objected to the Senate plan, saying minority voting strength would be reduced in at least three districts.

Ultimately, the court concurred and the state went to work drawing new maps while it also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in 2003 overturned the district court's decision and the original 2001 Senate maps were put in play.

That experience shows there may be no easy path in 2011. Today, with political power reversed, Democrats are hoping for a fair draw from Republicans.

"There must be transparency in every aspect of the process," said Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta. "Citizen review and input is critical and every effort should have been made during this process to include citizens."

But while they're being careful, Democrats are also watching closely.

"I believe the potential for mischief exists in the redistricting process, which has traditionally been a very partisan process," Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur.

Mayo, who has attended several of the public hearings a special legislative committee on redistricting has held around the state, said compromise is possible. He warned, however, that going first to court could be more expensive.

"Bypassing the Justice Department would require the state to hire attorneys for representation in the District Court and surely be a more expensive and time consuming option," he said.