Abbott vs. Van Os
Sun August 6, 2006 10:00 am

The resolution of the redistricting lawsuit became a battleground in the race for attorney general -- although it's not much of a race when the outcome is predestined. Incumbent Republican Greg Abbott and his longshot Democratic challenger, David Van Os put out dueling press releases on the subject, which appear below.

Abbott's statement: "We are very pleased this extended litigation is now at a close. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld 31 of the 32 congressional districts in Texas, and today the district court has adopted a remedial plan for the one remaining district, District 23, and four adjoining districts. The district court's map is a limited, neutral plan that puts the voters first and rightly rejects plaintiffs' efforts to seek partisan gain through the judicial process."

Van Os's statement: "Today, incumbent Attorney General Greg Abbott issued his usual self-congratulatory press release in the wake of this decision. If I were him I would not be proud of his Republican buddies' violations of the Voting Rights Act. I am certain Abbott will now go into court and try to delay the court from remedying the violation. This is the same Greg Abbott who has been indicting minority citizens on questionable charges of 'voter fraud' in the continuing perpetration of Republican Party voter suppression tactics. All the more reason Texans need an Attorney General who will promote instead of suppress the voting rights of all Texas citizens. " (This is the closing paragraph from a longer statement.)

I don't monitor the AG's office on an ongoing basis, but my sense of Abbott's first term in an office that is both a legal shop and a political shop is that he has been more of a lawyer than a politician. He has certainly been less political than his predecessor, John Cornyn, who used the office to bedevil the plaintiffs lawyers in the tobacco lawsuit, to court insurance companies, and to curry favor with then-Governor Bush. Democrats attacked Abbott for getting involved in the Tom DeLay ballot case, but Abbott has a defensible position for doing so, which is that the federal District Court had issued an injunction against Secretary of State Roger Williams, and Williams was entitled to legal representation by the state's lawyer.

That said, Abbott's statement in the redistricting case is the opposite of the way he has conducted himself in office; it is more politics than law. Both sides -- not just the plaintiffs -- sought partisan gain in this case, and the plaintiffs did so with more justification than the state defendants (Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick), on whose behalf Abbott entered the case. As Abbott points out in his statement, the Supreme Court upheld 31 of the 32 districts -- but this case was about the odd district out, and the plaintiffs had won that case. The High Court held that the Texas Legislature had violated the Voting Rights Act when it split Webb County, removing 100,000 Latinos from the 23rd congressional district in an effort to assure the reelection of incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla. Had the Legislature not acted illegally, Bonilla might have drawn a strong Democratic opponent in 2004 and suffered defeat. What Abbott described as partisan gain, the plaintiffs saw as their rightful remedy at law to prevent the Republicans from profiting (through the reelection of Bonilla) from their illegal act. I think that the Court did the right thing: It drew a district for Bonilla that either party could win, but in which the incumbent has strategic advantages.

The Republican state defendants had a partisan agenda too. Their map didn't change the number of seats in the Texas delegation held by each party, but it served the GOP's purposes in other ways. The state defendants' map removed District 25, represented by incumbent Democrat Lloyd Doggett, from Travis County, leaving the famously liberal "People's Republic of Austin," as Republicans like to call it, to be represented only by Republicans. Doggett would surely have faced a tough race in his redrawn district against a Democrat from South Texas, the population base of the proposed district. It does not sadden Republicans to see the Democratic party become more and more a party of color. The three-judge court restored Doggett's Travis County base.

The most notable thing about Van Os's statement, aside from its dripping sarcasm, was his criticism of Abbott for "indicting minority citizens on questionable charges of 'voter fraud....'" The charge calls to mind HB 1706 from the last legislative session, which was part of a nationwide Republican effort to crack down on voter fraud. (Democrats regarded the bill as an effort to prevent or intimidate minorities from voting.) The bill required voters to show not only a voter registration certificate but also a photo ID, such as a driver's license, or an acceptable substitute. Democrats saw the bill as an attempt to prevent minorities from voting, since the poor, presumably, are less likely to have driver's licenses and photo IDs than the affluent. Greg Abbott would not be doing his job if he didn't prosecute wrongdoers for voter fraud, but it is going to be interesting to see whether he will use these prosecutions to testify about the necessity of these restrictions on voters when son of HB 1706 comes up in the next legislative session.

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