The only surprise in the new congressional redistricting map for Central and South Texas drawn by a three-judge federal court was the inclusion of District 15, represented by Ruben Hinojosa, of Mercedes, among the districts the Court revised. The panel’s general intentions became known early in Thursday’s lengthy hearing, when presiding judge Patrick Higginbotham offered a “suggestion” of how the defects in the map that the Legislature passed in 2003 could be fixed (see my post from Thursday, “Fine Lines”). I trust that by now that most readers know the fundamentals of the case: that the Legislature’s map split Webb County in an effort to give Republican Henry Bonilla a safe seat in District 23, which covers most of Southwest Texas; that lawmakers created a new, elongated Latino district running from Austin to the Rio Grande in an effort to offset the damage done to Latino voters in Webb County; and that this maneuver did not deter the U.S. Supreme Court from finding that the division of Webb County violated the Voting Rights Act. Higginbotham’s soliloquy revealed the Court’s intentions to a packed courtroom: reunite Webb County and shift it from District 23 to the adjacent District 28, represented by Democrat Henry Cuellar, of Laredo; redraw the elongated “fajita strip” District 25, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, of Austin, to produce a more compact shape in and around Austin; shift District 21, represented by Republican Lamar Smith, of San Antonio, westward into the Hill Country; and move Bonilla’s district northward into San Antonio.

Here’s what the new districts look like. I hope you know your Texas geography, and your counties. It might help to take a look at the 2003 map (Plan 1374C).

*Bonilla (District 23). The district continues to run from San Antonio to the eastern outskirts of El Paso. The western half of Webb County, with its large Latino population, is out of the district. This is good for Bonilla. Also gone are four Hill Country counties–Bandera, Kendall, Kerr, and Real (extra credit for pronouncing the latter’s name correctly as RAY ahl). This is not so good for Bonilla. And while Bonilla retains the Republican northwest side of San Antonio, he now has the Democratic south side as well. This is very bad for Bonilla. The south side is the stronghold of former Democratic congressman Ciro Rodriguez, who may well consider challenging Bonilla, if not this fall, then in 2008. Bonilla’s district went from being a safe Republican district to a marginal one–8 percentage points less Republican than it was under the old alignment.

*Cuellar (District 28). The old district ran from the Rio Grande below Laredo north toward San Antonio, staying mostly east of I-35. The new map is probably his dream district. It makes his home county of Webb whole, gives him the bottom of Doggett’s now-defunct “fajita strip” (Jim Hogg and Starr counties, along with a small slice of Hidalgo), and moves the south side of San Antonio and Ciro Rodriguez (who lost his seat to Cuellar in a brutal 2004 Democratic primary) out of his district and into Bonilla’s. The Court may have made him congressman for life.

*Doggett (District 25). The “fajita strip” district got chewed up. The new district is anchored in southeast Austin and roughly follows State Highway 71 down to Interstate 10 at Columbus. Doggett keeps the top of the old fajita strip, Caldwell and Gonzales counties, and picks up Hays County to the south and Lavaca, Colorado, and Fayette counties to the east, along with part of Bastrop. A couple of weeks ago, it seemed as Doggett might not survive a Republican ploy to draw his district out of Austin. Now he has an ideal district that is safely Democratic–at least until the 2011 redistricting.

*Hinojosa (District 15). His former district, like Doggett’s, had a long and narrow profile. It followed the curvature of the lower Texas coast, just inland from the seaward tier of counties, but eventually made its way north to the outskirts of Austin. The new district gives up the northern counties (Lavaca, Colorado, Fayette, Bastrop) to Doggett and adds three South Texas counties from the middle of the old fajita strip (Duval, Live Oak, and Karnes). Since the departed northern counties are overwhelmingly Anglo and the new southern counties range from 40 percent to 88 percent Latino, the new lines can only help Hinojosa politically.

*Smith (District 21). When the Legislature went looking for Republican voters to make Bonilla’s seat safely Republican in 2003, it found them in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio, which at the time was part of Smith’s district. The loss of these counties meant that Smith’s district had to shift east into the Interstate 35 corridor counties (Travis, Hays, Comal, and Bexar). When the Supreme Court struck down the split of Webb County, the annexation of the Hill Country counties to Bonilla’s district was doomed. Smith’s new district shifts back to the west, picking up Bandera, Kendall, Kerr, and Real counties. He has a safe Republican district, but so much of his territory is now in Austin and its environs that he has to worry about a possble GOP primary challenge in the future.

The map is a clear victory for the Democrats, a rarity these days. This result is due not to judicial partisanship but rather to the Supreme Court’s mandate that more Latinos be added to Bonilla’s district to remedy the Voting Rights Act violation. It is possible, though not likely, that the Ds could pick up two seats in this election cycle, Bonilla’s and Tom DeLay’s. Before they celebrate too much, they would be wise to remember that their main grounds for challenging the Republicans’ 2003 map–partisan redistricting–was rejected by the Supreme Court, and that this victory affects only one of Texas’s 32 congressional districts, which remains in Republican hands.

The Court’s opinion was not legally noteworthy. It contained but one case citation–to the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case. Mostly it was a nuts-and-bolts explanation of what the Court did and why. I did enjoy the first sentence: “We return to the map of congressional districts in Texas.” You had to be in the courtroom, listening to the judges crack jokes about how long and tedious the process has been, going back to 2001, to appreciate the world-weariness in those words. The judges took the opportunity to let the Legislature know what they thought of them, too: “That this remedial order makes changes in the lines of five districts, as few as possible consistent with conscientious partisan neutrality, is not the product of aggressive remediation. Rather it is the consequence of an aggressive map….”

Where the Court really shined was in its mastery of the technique of redistricting. Although only one district in the Legislature’s map violated redistricting law, and the violation was statutory (the Voting Rights Act) rather than constitutional, the judges were aware that their counterparts on the Supreme Court had been troubled by the quirky shape of districts 28 (Cuellar), 25 (Doggett), and 15 (Hinojosa) in South Texas. All were elongated and connected Anglo population concentrations in the center of the state with Latino concentrations in the far south, with nothing but sparsely populated rural areas in between. The Court’s solution was ingenious. Most of the groups that submitted maps in the case assumed that Webb County had to be put back together to satisfy the Supremes, and since the division of Webb had affected Bonilla’s district, they assumed that the reunited Webb County had to be in Bonilla’s District 23. The League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a lead plaintiff in the case, submitted the only map I came across that put Webb County in Cuellar’s District 28. The Court recognized that this was the key to redrawing the entire five-district area. The shift of Webb into a district east of Bonilla’s set in motion a counterclockwise circulation of population that pushed Doggett back toward Austin, Lamar Smith back into the Hill Country, and Bonilla down into south San Antonio. Of the alternative choice, the Court had this to say: “The clockwise movement that would be necessitated by putting Webb County in District 23 frustrates the connection of noncompact “bacon strip” districts.” I guess I have to stop calling them fajita strips.

If there was a loser in this case, it was the state defendants (Perry/Dewhurst/Craddick), who submitted a map that complied with the law but, as this threesome has done throughout the process, overreached by attempting to eviscerate Doggett; their map moved District 25 out of Travis County, leaving the state’s largest (and only) concentration of Anglo Democrats bereft of representation. To say that they have no shame states the obvious. In defending the map before the Court, state solicitor general Ted Cruz made a transparently disingenous argument when he said, “The map submitted by the state defendants has a district Doggett could run in and win–97% of the district represents the geography of his former district.” Yes, but the other 3 percent was his political base. His home county wasn’t in the new district. Geography doesn’t matter; as the Supreme Court observed back in the sixties, it is people, not trees and cows, who vote. When Higginbotham suggested pulling Webb County out of Bonilla’s district and replacing those Democrats with others in Bexar County, Cruz objected that it “yields a political result [making Bonilla vulnerable to a Democratic challenge].” Left unsaid was that the map he was urging the Court to adopt did the same. (The fault, of course, lies not with Cruz, but with his clients.) Higginbotham responded that the Legislature had put the 25th in Travis County, and, in taking it out, the state defendants had made “a change that was not necessary.” This was the moment in the hearing that the Court’s intention to draw its own map–and indeed probably had already done so–became clear.

A final word on the two cases I observed this week–this one and the Tom DeLay ballot case before the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans three days earlier. I’m not too enamored of the executive branch of the federal government these days, and who could find anything to like about this Congress, but the much maligned federal judiciary looked great to me. Both cases had significant political implications, but both courts, and especially their presiding judges, displayed intelligence, fairness, restraint, nonpartisanship, and a desire to follow the law. No citizen could ask for more.