Supreme Court to enter tangled Texas redistricting case

The Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments over whether federal judges overstepped their authority when they revised state and congressional districts drawn by the Texas Legislature.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, May 3, 2011. The Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether federal judges overstepped their authority when they revised state and congressional districts drawn by the Texas Legislature.

A bitter dispute over minority voting rights in Texas arrives at the US Supreme Court on Monday where the justices must decide which legislative districts will be used in upcoming elections.

At issue is whether federal judges in San Antonio overstepped their authority when they took it upon themselves to redraw congressional and state house election districts without any prior judicial determination that maps drawn for that purpose by the Texas Legislature were illegal or unconstitutional. 

Texas officials object to using interim judge-drawn maps while election districts established by the state Legislature remain tied up in ongoing litigation.

With elections fast approaching, the Supreme Court is hearing on an expedited basis three consolidated cases that look at whether the judges' interim maps should be used or whether the judges should have relied more on the maps drawn by the Legislature. 

Meanwhile, a federal three-judge panel in Washington is set to consider whether the original maps drawn by the Texas Legislature should be given preclearance for use in the upcoming election – and future elections – or whether there are parts of that must be amended to comply with the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. 

Texas had been scheduled to conduct its primary election on so-called Super Tuesday – March 6. But escalating legal battles have forced state officials to push the vote date back to April 3.

Now, with the Supreme Court involved, even that date may be in jeopardy.

Importance of the case

The case is significant because how election districts are apportioned can alter who is elected in each district. The case involves disputed maps for election districts for the Texas state Senate and House, and for members of Congress.

The election maps produced by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature favored Republican candidates. In contrast, the maps drawn by the federal judges undercut many of those Republican preferences.

The legal case isn’t about which party may or may not gain an advantage in election district line-drawing. Politicians care about that; judges should not. The central issue for the courts is whether maps drawn by state lawmakers comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and with constitutional guarantees of one person, one vote.

Because Texas has a history of racial discrimination in elections, the Voting Rights Act requires the state to obtain prior approval from Washington before enacting any changes in its voting process – including drawing new election districts.

Texas sought approval last summer, but that process has bogged down. At the same time, several minority groups and candidates filed lawsuits in San Antonio objecting to Texas’ proposed new election districts. The minority groups alleged that the newly drawn districts seek to dilute the growing political clout of Latino voters in Texas.

The minority groups asked the three-judge panel in San Antonio to designate interim election maps to be used in lieu of the state’s maps as litigation over redistricting is sorted out in the courts. Two of the three judges agreed and produced new maps, significantly changing the districts drawn by the Texas Legislature.

Lawyers for Texas say the judges usurped the role of elected lawmakers in drawing their own election maps.

“Without making any finding of an actual or likely violation of law, the court simply redrew Texas’ election maps based on its own notions of ‘neutral principles,’ the ‘collective public good,’ and ‘fairness and impartiality,’ " Washington lawyer Paul Clement wrote in the Texas brief to the Supreme Court. “Those are not standards that courts can meaningfully apply,” he said.

“Redistricting is an inherently political process, and – in the absence of some violation of statutory or constitutional law – it is wholly committed to the discretion of state legislatures,” Mr. Clement wrote.

Texas says the three-judge court should have endorsed the Legislature’s maps on an interim basis to allow the election to move forward while challenges to the overall redistricting plan continued in court.

Short of that, Texas lawyers say, the judges should have made a preliminary determination of those portions of the new maps likely to violate the law or the Constitution, and then altered only those portions of the maps to create interim maps for the approaching election.

Critics slam Legislature's maps

Opponents of the Legislature’s newly drawn districts say using the state’s plan as a baseline for interim maps would allow the state to pull off an end run around the election laws and other protections for minority voters.

The Texas Legislature’s redistricting plan “was largely governed by unlawful racial considerations, as Texas legislators knew precisely how best to … pick off, split up, and drown out minority voters to ensure that minority population gains would not translate into minority electoral gains,” wrote Austin lawyer Renea Hicks in a brief to the high court.

By law, congressional districts must be recalculated every 10 years to reflect updated US census figures. The Texas population increased by more than 4 million during the past decade. The increase qualified the state for four new congressional districts, boosting the Texas congressional delegation from 32 to 36 seats.

Minority groups and candidates argued in their lawsuit that because Latinos accounted for 65 percent of the increased population, they deserved additional Latino-majority districts in both Congress and the Texas House.

“Texas has not added a Latino-opportunity congressional district since 1991,” wrote Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a brief to the court.

“Since the 1990 census, the Latino population in Texas increased by 5.1 million; the Anglo population increased by 1.1 million,” Perales wrote. “Nevertheless, Texas crafted a congressional plan that carves away majority-Latino counties from majority-Latino districts and uses race to change districts to ensure that Latinos cannot elect their candidates of choice.”

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