Elections

Redistricting Ruling Bolsters Democrats' Battle in Texas

by | March 13, 2017

By Kevin Diaz and Mike Ward

A new federal court ruling that some Texas congressional boundaries in 2011 were purposely drawn to dilute minority voter strength could someday help turn Texas a little more blue.

It also could be a setback for Republicans who have long sought to free the Lone Star state of federal oversight in elections.

But for now, Friday's 2-1 ruling by a panel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas remains just a marker -- however significant -- in a drawn-out redistricting battle that could eventually be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling covers only 2011 maps and not the ones adopted in 2013 that took their place. For Democrats and minority leaders behind the current legal challenge, it still provides momentum for their continuing claims of discrimination, and for the need for Washington to step in.

"This is a great victory for LULAC, the people of Texas and the Latino community," wrote Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., League of United Latin American Citizens' national general counsel.

The ruling came as U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi weighs whether the Republican-led Legislature intended to discriminate against minorities in a 2011 voter ID law as well. Both decisions, if upheld, carry the potential of sinking Texas back under a pre-clearance review process to determine whether future maps and other state election procedures violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

"This long-awaited decision demonstrates yet again that serious voting rights violations continue to occur, and that the vote-suppression deniers in Congress are delusional," said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Still, the Lone Star State's congressional boundaries are unlikely to change before next year's mid-term elections. Unless the court intervenes with another ruling in the case, they will be held under the same 2013 boundaries that were set after this legal challenge.

Appeal a certainty

Democrats argue that many of the defects from 2011 carried over into the 2013 map. If they prevail, one possible remedy would be a new federally mandated redistricting process -- and possibly more federal court reviews.

To Republicans, however, it is far from certain the court will implicate the 2013 map as well. Even if it did, an appeal directly to the Supreme Court would be likely -- pushing back any resolution perhaps into a future election cycle.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton had no immediate comment Saturday. Other officials said an appeal was almost a certainty.

"I can't imagine the state wouldn't appeal," said state Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting that drew the original maps. "Redistricting cases go on forever, until we start the next redistricting, and they are very complicated."

A change of administration also looms over both Texas voting rights cases. President Donald Trump's Justice Department dropped the Obama administration's support for a claim of intentional discrimination in the Voter ID case. Some analysts expect a similar change of course in the ongoing redistricting battle.

As it stands, the latest ruling could magnify the national spotlight on the vast 23rd Congressional District currently held by San Antonio Republican Will Hurd.

Hurd has won the state's only swing congressional district twice by narrow margins. Redrawing the border district to include more Hispanic voters could significantly boost Democrats' chances of winning it back some day.

Since Hurd won the district in 2014 by a 2,422-vote margin, Democrats have held only 11 of the Lone Star State's 36 congressional districts.

Examining the sprawling district along the Mexican border between San Antonio and El Paso, the panel found that the Legislature divided Latino communities with "the intent and effect of diluting Latino voter opportunity."

The court's ruling found federal voting rights violations in two other Republican-drawn congressional districts in 2011: District 35, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio, and District 27, which runs along the Gulf Coast south of Houston.

But District 35 is already comfortably held by a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, and District 27, held by Corpus Christi Republican Blake Farenthold, shows no signs of being anything but a GOP stronghold.

200-page ruling

The panel also found that minority voters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were improperly divided in the 2011 redistricting map that carved up Texas after the last census. But no district lines in the Metroplex were invalidated.

The nearly 200-page ruling found that race, not merely political advantage, drove some of the congressional lines drawn by the Texas Legislature.

But that finding did not apply across the entire 2011 map of Texas. The judges decided that the plaintiffs in the six-year-old case -- an alliance of minority and civil rights groups -- did not prove intentional racial discrimination in Houston area districts represented by African-Americans.

Still, Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee applauded the ruling. The congresswoman said the population gains that African Americans and Hispanics made in the 2010 Census were never reflected.

"They were playing with the numbers," she said. "The courts have finally acknowledged that there are voting rights violations that have occurred -- that the districts are not districts that are one person, one vote. They are skewed to party and not to generate participation. I am grateful that the issue of the violation of voting rights has been now reinforced by the courts. The tragedy is that the courts did not direct how to fix it and it will be the responsibility of the state legislature to redesign. No matter who you are, I would think you'd want to make sure voters vote and that they are represented."

The ruling stems from a lengthy trial in August 2014. Writing for the majority were U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, a Democrat appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, and U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush. Rodriguez also served on the Texas Supreme Court, where former Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to replace Abbott.

'It ripples'

The dissent, which was critical of the Obama administration's involvement in the case, was written by Justice Jerry Smith, a Republican appointed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Ronald Reagan.

Even if the panel's ruling were eventually extended to the 2013 map, it is hard to know how the lines would be redrawn. Backers of the lawsuit predict that whatever happens could have spillover effects into districts adjoining those that were invalidated by the court ruling.

"It ripples," said Matt Angle, who heads the Lone Star Project, a group that seeks to turn Texas blue. Shifts in Hispanic or African American voters in the affected districts around Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Travis County could create newly competitive congressional districts in the future.

Redrawing the lines would initially be a job for the Legislature. In light of the new finding of intentional discrimination, the suit's backers are pressing for immediate action. "All Texans deserve the right to elect their candidate of choice," said Rafael Anchia, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "We demand swift action by the Texas Legislature to allow all communities to cast a ballot that counts."

But if another round of redistricting doesn't ultimately fix the violations that the plaintiffs see in the current congressional map of Texas, the matter could eventually be thrown back into the federal courts.

Staff writer Cindy George contributed to this report.

(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle

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