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.
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.
But that did not end the approval process. Because Texas has a past history of racial discrimination in voting, it must submit its newly-enacted redistricting plans to Washington for pre-approval before the plans may be used in an election.
That process began last year when Texas submitted its new districts to a three-judge panel in Washington. The panel rejected the state’s request for a summary approval and instead is conducting an eight-day trial to determine whether the new districts comply with civil rights laws and do not dilute minority political power.
At the same time that process began moving forward in Washington, a group of candidates and minority rights organizations filed lawsuits in San Antonio challenging the legality of the newly-drawn districts and charging that they undercut the growing political clout of Latinos and other minorities in the state.
They argued that 65 percent of the new residents in Texas were Hispanic and an additional 24 percent were minorities, yet the new Texas plan did not provide any new congressional districts likely to elect minority candidates.
Texas officials defended the new plan, saying it was motivated by a desire to protect incumbents, including Latino Republicans, rather than to discriminate against minorities.
With Texas’s primary election scheduled for early March, the San Antonio judges determined that they would need to fashion new interim districts to allow voters to go to the polls while the legal determination for pre-clearance in Washington continued.
The judges decided that since Texas’ enacted redistricting maps had not yet been pre-cleared in Washington they would have to draw interim maps themselves.
State officials objected, arguing that it gave the San Antonio challengers and federal judges veto power over election districts that had been enacted by state lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry.
In agreeing to take up the appeal, the Supreme Court issued a stay blocking the San Antonio court from relying on its new districts.
On Friday, the court vacated the judges’ orders creating the new maps and instructed the San Antonio judges to start over while using the Legislature’s enacted districts as a starting point.
The court acknowledged that judges are generally not allowed to rely on new redistricting maps before they have been approved in Washington. But in this case, the court said, the Texas plan reflects state policy judgments that federal judges must take into account when fashioning interim maps.
“The state plan serves as a starting point for the district court,” the justices said. “It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appropriately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court’s own preferences.”