The US Supreme Court has agreed to intervene in a fight over how best to redraw legislative districts in Texas, taking up an emergency election-year appeal involving four new congressional seats and the rising political clout of Latinos in the state.
The high court announced late on Friday it would hear an appeal filed by Texas Republicans over whether a panel of federal judges in San Antonio acted properly when it replaced the Texas legislature’s congressional redistricting map with their own map.
The judges’ map creates districts that appear to favor Latino candidates and Democrats in at least three of the state’s four new congressional seats.
Under the map drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature, the number of Latino and black-leaning districts remained unchanged from existing congressional districts.
At issue before the court is whether the judges were authorized to redraw legislative districts – and disregard the work of the elected legislature – without first determining that the proposed districts violated either constitutional guarantees or the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
The court stayed all orders issued by the panel in San Antonio and set oral argument for January 9.
The action leaves the Texas political landscape unsettled and could require state officials to postpone Texas’ March primary.
Bitter fights over redistricting in Texas are nothing new. The high court last examined gerrymandering in Texas in a 2006 case. The current battle stems from an effort to allocate the state’s significant population growth equally among election districts.
Every ten years states are required to redraw their legislative districts to reflect population changes. The Texas population increased by 4.3 million in the 2010 census. The increase qualifies the state for four additional congressional seats, boosting the state’s congressional delegation from 32 to 36 members.
Hispanics made up 65 percent of the state’s new residents, but the state legislature declined to draw any of the new districts to reflect that increase.
An analysis by the Justice Department’s civil rights division showed that districts likely to elect a minority candidate account for 31.3 percent of congressional seats currently, but that under the Republican-legislature’s new plan they would be only 27.7 percent of seats.
A coalition of minority groups filed suit in San Antonio, claiming the plan violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by diluting minority political power.
At the same time, Texas officials were seeking approval in Washington. Because Texas has a history of racial discrimination, the state must obtain pre-approval before enacting any changes to its election system.
During the review process, the Justice Department’s civil rights division objected to aspects of the Texas plan. In addition, a panel of judges in Washington refused to quickly sign off on the proposed new districts.
In the meantime, the federal lawsuit in San Antonio moved forward, with the judges mindful of fast-approaching election deadlines. In a 2-1 ruling the judges decided to redraw their own election maps for the state legislature, the state Senate, and the US House of Representatives.
It is those actions the Supreme Court will examine.
Texas Republicans complained that the judges had usurped a role assigned to elected officials – not unelected judges.
Minority groups countered that the judges’ plan more accurately reflected the shifting currents of political power in Texas.
While blocking implementation of those maps, the Supreme Court established an expedited briefing schedule, with legal papers due at the court December 21 and Jan. 3.
“The Texas Attorney General’s Office is committed to protecting the integrity of Texas’ elections by ensuring they are conducted based on legally constructed redistricting maps,” Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement.
“We understand the need for speed for Texas voters as well as those who wish to run for office, and will work to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” he said.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus and a participant in the San Antonio litigation, said he did not agree that the state’s appeal had merit, but he said he respected the court’s decision to hear the case.
“We are deeply concerned about the potential disruption of the 2012 election schedule,” he said in a statement.
“Our resolve remains stronger than ever and our commitment to minority voting rights unwavering,” Mr. Fischer added. “If there ever was a textbook case of Voting Rights Act violations, this is it.”
“I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to halt an activist court’s Texas congressional map drawn to run up the score for Democrats,” he said. “From day one, our goal has been fair maps through fair processes, and this Supreme Court hearing will determine what role Texans’ voices play in redistricting.”