Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lawyers lining up for costly Texas redistricting battle

When he was chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Tom Phillips presided over several cases involving political redistricting.

Now a partner in the Baker Botts law firm, the 61-year-old attorney is revisiting the issue from a different perspective as a $10,000-a-month legal adviser for the House of Representatives.

As lawmakers plunge into the task of redrawing congressional and legislative districts, an impressive array of legal talent is springing into action, underscoring the likelihood of court challenges to whatever the Legislature produces.

In fact, the first lawsuit was filed even before the census numbers came out this week.

Attorney Michael Hull of Austin, representing three Texas voters, sued numerous state and federal officials in an effort to ensure that only citizens are factored into redistricting calculations. The lawsuit contends that counting illegal immigrants in political districts is unfair and illegal.

The House and Senate have brought in outside attorneys to help guide lawmakers through the legal thicket accompanying redistricting. Minority advocacy groups are fielding legal teams that include lawyers who have battled redistricting cases all the way to the Supreme Court. Many lawmakers directly affected by redistricting will likely retain legal counsel as they seek to protect their political turf.

"I guess the redistricting process employs a lot of lawyers," said Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, a member of the Senate redistricting panel.

The 82nd Legislature's foray into redistricting effectively began Thursday with the release of detailed census data that will be used to draw new boundaries for the state's expanded congressional delegation as well as for the 150 members of the Texas House and the 31 members of the state Senate.

Hispanics and blacks, who drove most of the population growth over the past decade, are demanding that the new districts adequately reflect their expanded presence in the electorate.

The Texas attorney general's office will represent the state on any challenge that winds up in court, but leaders of the House and Senate contracted with outside legal advisers to make sure that emerging redistricting plans comply with the Voting Rights Act, legislative officials say.

The Justice Department is required to review election changes in Texas to prevent the dilution of minority representation.

The contract with the Baker Botts firm calls for a $10,000-a-month fee to Phillips and up to $500 an hour for any other attorneys who might assist, according to the speaker's office.

Baylor University professors David Guinn and Mike Morrison will advise senators on their redistricting plans at the hourly rate of $400 apiece, according to Senate officials.

The Senate has a $100,000 cap on the outside legal advice.

The contract with Baker Botts is uncapped, but officials in the House, which has almost five times as many members as the Senate, may seek to renegotiate the contract because of the state's budget problems.

"It is important to the House as an institution and to the people of Texas that the legislative map be upheld against any court challenge, and working with our lawyers on the front end is the best way to achieve that result and minimize costs on the back end," said Tracy Young, spokeswoman for House Speaker Joe Straus.

Phillips said he will advise the speaker and House leaders on whether House redistricting plans will comply with federal law.

The contract will remain in force through any trial.

"The past history has always been that someone brings a lawsuit," said Phillips, who began working for the House on Sept. 1. Phillips, who was chief justice of the state's highest civil appeals court from 1988 until 2004, said the court dealt with at least four substantial redistricting issues during his tenure, as well as "some minor procedural questions."

"I'm on a different side of the bench now," he said, "but I've been to the rodeo before."

With redistricting under way in statehouses nationwide, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has set up an unprecedented 12-state legal project that will focus heavily on Texas.

"It'll be a bigger project than we've ever had before," said Nina Perales of San Antonio, the fund's director of litigation who will head the coast-to-coast project.

Perales has extensive experience in redistricting challenges and participated in Supreme Court arguments on a 2003 Texas redistricting plan that the court ordered redrawn.

Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, said his organization has a "great team" of two career voting-rights experts and four civil-rights attorneys.

"It will be very expensive," he said.

Political parties and affiliated groups are also poised for action.

Texas Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri said the state party decided not to put a legal team in place as a cost-saving measure but has formed an advisory group on redistricting and will support other like-minded organizations legally engaged in the issue.

Kirsten Gray, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, said, "We expect that a number of experienced redistricting lawyers will be working with various Democratic officeholders, organizations and the party."

By Dave Montgomery, Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief., 512-476-4294


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