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A federal panel that struck down Georgia’s House and Senate maps Tuesday as “baldly unconstitutional” may have established a new standard for legislative redistricting. The court’s reasoning seemingly sets a different standard for redistricting in Georgia than that used by 24 other states, according to the legislative maps’ Democratic defenders. The judges ruled that Georgia’s legislative maps, which Democrats engineered in 2001 to preserve their strength in the General Assembly, violated the equal rights principle of one man, one vote. The suit was brought by 29 Republican voters whose party is likely to benefit in a new redistricting plan. The voters were represented by Frank B. Strickland and Anne W. Lewis of Strickland Brockington Lewis. The judges based their decision on a conclusion that the legislative maps unjustifiably protected Democrat-leaning regions. The maps packed some Republican-leaning districts — many in the Atlanta suburbs — while underpopulating Democratic-leaning districts in the inner city and in rural South Georgia. The effect gave the overpopulated areas less representation in the Legislature, which led to the panel’s ruling that the one man, one vote principle was violated. Twenty-four states used a formula similar to the one Georgia Democrats used to draw the now-defunct maps, said Bobby Kahn, who was chief of staff to then-Gov. Roy E. Barnes when the Democrats pushed their redistricting plan through the General Assembly, and state Sen. M. Kasim Reed, who was on a House committee that worked on the maps. PUSHING THE LINE A key issue in the case was how much the population of some legislative districts varied from the average. A 1983 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court said that districts that had populations varying by less than 10 percent from the average were presumed to be constitutional. Brown v. Thomson, 462 U.S. 835. The districts in the Georgia plan varied by 9.98 percent. Ten percent, Kahn said, “has been the safe harbor” in which redistricting plans needed to be anchored. But the panel members, Judge Stanley Marcus of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. and U.S. District Senior Judge William C. O’Kelley, weren’t convinced by the Democrats’ math. In a per curiam decision, they wrote that “the plans’ drafters pushed the deviation as close to the 10% line as they thought they could get away with, conceding the absence of an ‘honest and good faith effort’ to construct equal districts” as described in a voting rights case from the civil rights era, Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964). In the Georgia case, the judges didn’t say how much deviation is acceptable. But they made it clear that districts should deviate for reasons other than to further the interests of people in one region — in this case Democrats in South Georgia and Atlanta — over those in another — suburban Atlanta Republicans. Likewise, the court said deviation might be acceptable to keep incumbents from all parties from running against one another in new districts, but not — as in this case — to protect only Democrats. Reed was incredulous that the court would change the rules. He reiterated that 24 states used a formula similar to Georgia’s, adding that a Texas plan that greatly favored Republicans was recently upheld by a federal court. M. Laughlin McDonald, a veteran voting rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “It’s absolutely plain the three-judge court was offended” by the Georgia Democrats’ plan. McDonald speculated that since no court has upended a redistricting plan purely because it was unfairly partisan, the panel came up with a way to throw out the Georgia Democrats’ map on more accepted grounds. Regional favoritism was banned by the Supreme Court in its landmark Reynolds case, the panel noted, citing then-Chief Justice Earl Warren’s statement, “The fact that an individual lives here or there is not a legitimate reason for overweighting or diluting the efficacy of his vote.” The panel concluded that the state of Georgia had not proved any justifiable reason to favor the rural South Georgia or inner-city Atlanta regions. “In short, the regional favoritism built into the Georgia House and Senate Plans created more than a taint of arbitrariness and discrimination,” the panel wrote. Democrats had testified that they had drawn the districts in order to protect incumbent legislators, but the panel declared that Democrats’ reasoning “went far beyond anything the Supreme Court has ever allowed.” The panel concluded that while the issue of whether partisan advantage may justify population deviations remained open, “partisan interests are bound up inextricably with the interests of regionalism and incumbent protection. “It is simply not possible to draw out and isolate the political goals in these plans from the plainly unlawful objective of regional protection or from the inconsistently applied objective of incumbent protection.” Larios v. Cox, No. 1:03CV693-CAP (N.D. Feb. 10, 2004). IMPACT ON REDISTRICTING The ACLU’s McDonald said the panel’s reasoning establishes “a rule no court has ever applied” and one that “makes redistricting now utterly impossible to do.” Strickland, one of the winning GOP lawyers, responded that “as long as a state follows traditional redistricting principles, with much lower deviations, we think redistricting can proceed in an orderly fashion.” McDonald said he worries that the rules now in place will make minority voting rights a lower priority for the state’s next mapmakers. Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker last year won a double victory when the state Supreme Court ruled he could defy Gov. George E. “Sonny” Perdue III’s order not to appeal a separate redistricting ruling, and the U.S. high court vacated a ruling that the state Senate map violated blacks’ voting rights. Baker issued a statement late Wednesday saying that he was consulting with his client, Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who was the only named defendant in the case decided on Tuesday. After that discussion, the statement continued, “a decision on the appropriate legal course of action will be made.” On Tuesday afternoon, Cox was outside the state Capitol when she was asked by a reporter whether she would ask for an appeal. Pointing at the AG’s office across the street, she said she would follow Baker’s direction. Asked on Tuesday what he would do if Baker appealed the latest ruling, Perdue said, “We should not waste any more of the taxpayers’ money in the courts.” Perdue noted that the panel was made up of judges from both parties, suggesting their unanimous ruling should be an example for the divided General Assembly. Pannell was a 1999 appointee of President Clinton. O’Kelley was a 1970 appointee of President Nixon. Marcus was appointed to the district court bench in 1985 by President Reagan; in 1997, Clinton tapped him for the 11th Circuit. Staff reporter Rachel Tobin Ramos contributed to this report.

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