The years-long battle by Democrats and minority groups against what they consider intentionally discriminatory drawing of congressional and legislative districts by Republicans got a possible boost from the U. S. Supreme Court Jan. 12.
The high court agreed to review rulings from last August by a three-judge federal court in San Antonio.
The first, on Aug. 15, ordered Texas to re-draw two Congressional districts for intentionally discriminating against minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats.
The second ruling, on Aug. 24, ordered Texas to re-draw nine Texas House districts for the same reasons.
The high court combined the two cases. Oral arguments will be heard in the spring.
That almost certainly means the current districts will be used for the 2018 elections. Party primary elections are set for March 6, with early voting to begin Feb. 20.
A high court decision isn’t expected until summer. By then, nominees chosen in party primaries will already be campaigning hard for the Nov. 8 general election.
The two congressional districts ruled discriminatory are the 27th, represented by Republican Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi, and the 35th, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin.
Farenthold’s 27th District (which includes Wharton County) stretches from the Gulf Coast to Bastrop County, just east of Austin, and discriminates against Hispanic voters in South Texas, left behind when the district was re-drawn in 2011.
Doggett’s 35th, stretching from Austin to San Antonio, had the opposite problem: designed to pack minority voters to elect a Hispanic, but diluting Hispanic clout in adjoining districts – like Farenthold’s.
The nine Texas House districts drawn discriminatorily were two each in Nueces, Bell and Tarrant counties, and three in Dallas County.
The court, in both the congressional and state House district cases, ordered Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton to let the judges know whether the Texas Legislature would re-draw the lines. If not, the judges would.
Paxton appealed to the Supreme Court, which put the lower court’s order on hold while it decided whether it would consider the matter.
Another issue in the case, if the Supreme Court finds that Texas violated the federal Voting Rights Act, could return Texas to being required to “pre-clear” voting changes, including redistricting, to be sure they are not discriminatory.
The court in 2013 threw out the requirement for federal pre-clearance, either by a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C. or the U.S. Department of Justice, on grounds the data on which states had been placed under pre-clearance were decades old.
But the judges also said if current discrimination were proven by a state, it could be returned to required pre-clearance.
Ironically, the challenged congressional district maps were drawn in 2012 by the three-judge court, to serve until the Legislature could address the issue. But in 2013, the Legislature adopted the court’s map.
In declaring the current two congressional districts discriminatory last year, the court said its 2012 re-drawing was done hastily, as an interim remedy, not intended as a long-term solution.
Also ironically, both sides of the legal battle – the state of Texas, and some of the several groups challenging the districting maps as intentionally discriminatory – welcomed the court’s decision to hear the case – though hoping for different results.
Paxton called the lower court’s declaring the districts discriminatory was “inexplicable and indefensible,” and said the state is “eager for the chance to present our case” to the Supreme Court.
On the other side, Eric H. Holder Jr. – attorney general under Democratic former President Barack Obama – also applauded.
“(T)he Supreme Court has another opportunity to send a message to governors and state legislatures that racial gerrymandering and intentional vote dilution is unconstitutional and diminishes the voice of minority citizens,” Holder said in a press statement.
The court is already considering challenges alleging partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Maryland.
Obama promised to make fighting partisan gerrymandering a priority in his post-White House activities, and Holder is chairing the National Democratic Redistricting Committee as part of that effort.
“By ending illegal gerrymandering, we can ensure that our elected officials represent the diversity of American communities,” Holder said.
“Just as the Supreme Court struck down racial gerrymanders in North Carolina and Virginia, they should uphold the district court’s decision striking down racially gerrymandered districts in Texas.”
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also said the court’s attention can help focus that of the public.
“Today’s news again shines light on (Republican Gov.) Greg Abbott and Texas Republicans’ pattern of discriminating against Texans of color,” Hinojosa said in a statement Friday.
“This is a welcome development on the eve of MLK weekend,” Holder said, “when we should all reflect on how discrimination continues to exist.”
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