The long road that began with Rick Perry’s decision to call a special session for congressional redistricting in the summer of 2003 approaches its terminus on Thursday morning when a three-judge panel in Austin hears oral arguments about how to fix the Voting Rights Act violation identified by the Supreme Court in District 23, represented by Republican Henry Bonilla, of San Antonio. The Court will have to draw new lines in the Austin-San Antonio-Laredo corridor (and points east and west), but in the end, only two congressmen are likely to be adversely affected: Bonilla and Democrat Lloyd Doggett, of Austin.

Various plans have been submitted to the Court, most of which repair the splitting of Webb County that caused the Supreme Court to invalidate Bonilla’s district. Bonilla could probably win such a district this year, because little time is left for a strong opponent to emerge, but he would be dead meat in future years. The repairing of Laredo requires enough population shifting (or, if you prefer, invites enough gerrymandering) that Doggett’s district could slide southward and lose its Austin base.

Bonilla can’t be happy with his prospects. If Webb County is made whole, he has no future in his “Border Patrol” district, which runs from I-35 all the way up the Rio Grande to the eastern outskirts of El Paso. If the Court favors a plan that gives him a district in the Republican areas of San Antonio, Austin, and the Hill Country, he will likely draw a challenge from Austin, where he is unknown. The truth is, even without the problems posed by redistricting, Bonilla is probably a short-termer in Congress. He was talking that way a couple of years ago, when I last sat down with him. He’d like to serve in the U.S. Senate, but his best chance may have come and gone when a plan for Phil Gramm to retire early and allow Rick Perry to appoint his successor went awry in 2002. There is a possibility that Kay Bailey Hutchison might vacate her seat, if she happened to get on the national Republican ticket in 2008, or came back to run for governor (sound familiar?) in 2010. But it’s hard to see a Latino winning a statewide Republican primary at a time when illegal immigration is a hot-button issue.

Doggett is smart, talented, intensely partisan, and, some would say, insufferably arrogant. That is cause enough for Republicans to mark him for elimination, but don’t expect old-line Democrats around the Texas Capitol, who remember him from his days as a state senator in the eighties, to mourn him either. If Doggett is left without a base to run from, the liberal bastion of Austin will not have a Democratic representative in Congress.

Here are some questions for which I’ll be looking for answers (or at least hints) during Thursday’s oral arguments:
*How much weight will the three-judge court give to the fact that the Democrats won their challenge to District 23 in the Supreme Court? The Democrats feel that the Republicans’ violation of the Voting Rights Act and their own victory in the lawsuit entitles them to pick up a district at the expense of Republicans–presumably Bonilla’s.
*How much deference will the Court give to incumbents? In previous decades, judges have tried to draw lines that were friendly to incumbents, rather than undo the will of the electorate. An incumbent-friendly map could return Bonilla and Doggett to office.
*Will the Court allow the elections to take place in November, or will it delay the election to allow new candidates to file in redrawn districts?
*Will the Court favor one of the maps that has already been submitted–especially the map approved by Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick that hurts Doggett–or will it draw its own map?

I’ll post after the hearing tomorrow.