Every few years - actually, every two years, for the past decade or so - there is an effort to have Texas join the dozen other states that have set up some redistricting process other than the legislature. Having legislators draw their own districts is contentious, expensive, bloody, and perhaps more than anything else bears out the adage that people should not watch the making of laws or sausage.
(For the 12 states with redistricting commissions, and how they are constituted and operate, see the National Conference of State Legislatures' analysis at http://www.ncsl. org/programs/legismgt/redistrict/com&alter. htm.)
A Texas commission to redraw congressional districts has been proposed repeatedly by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. But the idea hasn't gone very far.
However, he is gradually attracting more allies - like Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. Strama was one of six House members who introduced bills in 2005 to set up a redistricting commission. Strama's would have gone farther than Wentworth's, by having the commission draw legislative as well as congressional districts.
That 2005 regular legislative session was the first after former Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had convinced Texas leaders to re-draw congressional district lines in 2003, when there was no mandate from any court or anyone else to do so. The Texas Senate quietly supported Wentworth in 2005, 19-8, but neither Wentworth's or any of the bills proposed by House members ever made it to the House floor for consideration.
Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Beaumont, has already pre-filed a bill to allow redistricting only just after the census, unless a court orders otherwise.
In addition to the 12 states that have commissions of one sort or another, Texas is one of the five states that has a back-up commission to draw legislative districts should the legislature fail to redistrict in the first regular session after the census every 10 years.
If that happens, the Legislative Redistricting Board comes into existence. It is made up of the House speaker, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner.
The LRB has no responsibility for congressional redistricting. If the Legislature fails to draw congressional districts after the census - as happened in 2001 - the chore can go before a special legislative session, or to a federal court, as happened in 2001. It was the map drawn by a three-judge court that DeLay successfully sought to re-draw in 2003.
As for changing the method of selecting judges from election to appointment, we're already part-way there anyway. Five of the current nine members of the Texas Supreme Court reached that bench initially by appointment.
Every Republican district court judge in Dallas County who was opposed by a Democrat was knocked off the bench. While a case can be made that there's some virtue in electing judges at least within a county, it would be interesting to see how many Dallas County non-lawyers could name even five of their dozens of judges.
There are lots of possibilities for ways to appoint judges. There should be a filter for legal qualification; some states have a balanced committee draw up a list of lawyers capable of being good and fair-minded judges. That committee could build lists of potential appointees for a court seat, and the governor could choose from the lists.
To insure some further political balance, the appointments could be subject (as they are now) to a two-thirds vote of the Texas Senate. That would probably keep most ideologues off the bench.
The redistricting commission could go into effect for the 2011 redistricting following the census, which would produce new districts for the 2012 elections, when every legislator must run. The judicial selection commission could be set up also to take effect in 2011, for those appellate judges who would take office in 2013, and the appointive judges could be phased in as the elected ones serve out their terms.
Reach McNeely at email@example.com or (512) 323-0248.