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Supreme Court tells Texas judges to do a better job on election maps

Saying federal judges in Texas exceeded their authority in rejecting election districts drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature, the Supreme Court instructed the judges to find remedies closer to the state's maps.

By Staff writer / January 20, 2012



Federal judges hearing a lawsuit over election redistricting in Texas exceeded their authority when they jettisoned maps that had been approved by the state Legislature and replaced them with maps of their own.

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In an unsigned unanimous opinion on Friday, the US Supreme Court said a three-judge panel in San Antonio should have deferred to legislatively-drawn maps whenever possible and only departed from the enacted maps when necessary to avoid a likely violation of the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.

The dispute is significant because how election maps are drawn can impact who is elected and which political party prevails. With four new congressional districts in Texas, those and other newly drawn could play a key role in which party controls Congress next year.

The Republican-controlled Legislature’s maps were challenged by minority rights advocates and others who said they were drawn so as to minimize the likelihood of minority candidates being elected.

The high court said the federal judges in Texas were wrong to award themselves the power to draft new election districts and to base their effort on their own conception of what is best for Texas voters.

Setting the boundaries for congressional and other districts is a political task best left, as much as possible, to elected political leaders, the court said.

“To the extend the District Court exceeded its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of ‘the collective public good’ for the Texas Legislature’s determination of which policies serve ‘the interests of the citizens of Texas,’ the court erred,” the justices wrote.

“Because the District Court here had the benefit of a recently enacted plan to assist it, the court had neither the need nor the license to cast aside that vital aid,” the justices said.

The Supreme Court action returns the case to the three-judge panel in San Antonio with instructions to defer as much as possible to each legislatively-drawn district and fashion a new interim map only in those cases that are necessary to avoid likely violations.

The justices agreed to hear the consolidated appeals, Perry v. Perez (11-713, 11-714, 11-715), last month on an expedited basis with Texas’ scheduled April 3 primary fast approaching. They heard oral argument on Jan. 9.

In acknowledgment of the mounting legal morass, Texas postponed its planned March 6 primary for a month until early April. But even that date may not stand given the on-going litigation.

The Supreme Court appeal arose in the context of two different legal challenges related to the new election districts, which were adopted by the Republican-controlled Legislature in Austin last year.

New congressional districts must be drawn at least once every ten years to reflect population changes recorded in the census. Texas gained 4.3 million new residents since the 2000 census and thus qualifies for four additional seats in Congress, increasing the Texas congressional delegation from 32 to 36 seats.

In addition to apportioning the state’s voters among the 36 congressional districts, Texas also redrew election districts for its state house and state senate.

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