In Voting Rights Cases, Texas Suffers Its Third Blow in 2 Weeks

by | August 25, 2017

By Mike Ward Andrea Zelinski and Allie Morris

A three-judge federal court panel in San Antonio on Thursday struck down portions of the state's redistricting plan for state House districts and ordered state lawmakers to redraw nine legislative districts due to "intentional discrimination" by race.

The unanimous decision marked the third setback for state officials in two weeks in voting-rights cases, after a Thursday decision tossed out a new law softening Texas' strict voter-identification requirements and another last week invalidating several congressional district boundaries.

In an 83-page decision for the judges' panel, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez gave Attorney General Ken Paxton three days to advise advise him whether the Legislature will address the corrections and, if not, he set a Sept. 6 hearing to consider remedies for the violations.

The court panel found "intentional discrimination" in the way the Legislature drew boundary lines in two House districts (HD 54 and 55) in Bell County, in Central Texas; three districts in Dallas (HD 103, 104 and 105); two districts in Nueces County (HD 32 and 34), and two in Tarrant County (HD 90 and 93).

The judges' panel ruled that contested House district boundaries in Harris County, Fort Bend County and Bexar County "require no further changes." It also left intact other House district boundaries across Texas.

The decision also said that no changes are required in Midland and Ector counties because the Mexican American Legislative Council, one of the plaintiffs in the case, "lacks standing to pursue its claims" in those counties.

The decision said some of boundaries adopted in 2013 intentionally overemphasized race and that others diluted Latino voting strength.

"The Legislature in 2013 purposefully maintained the intentional discrimination" in its redistricting plan, the ruling states. "Thus, violations found by this Court . . . now require a remedy, including specifically in Bell County, Dallas County, Nueces County, and Tarrant County."

In a statement, Paxton said he was disappointed by the decision and vowed to appeal.

He said the state's House map was adopted by the court in 2012 "and has been in effect for the last three election cycles. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in San Antonio invalidated a portion of the map drawn for the Texas House of Representatives."

"The judges held that maps they themselves adopted violate the law," Paxton said.

Thursday's decision, if it becomes the subject of lengthy appeals, could complicate upcoming campaigns. Filing by candidates for House seats opens Nov. 11.

The prolonged legal battle over the redistricting maps has cost Texas taxpayers upwards of $3.9 million, a sum that doesn't include any costs incurred since mid-2014, when the total was tallied.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who last week had expressed irritation over the previous court decision against the state in another voting-rights case, has no immediate comment on Thursday's order. He had defended the 2011 maps in court when he was attorney general.

Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, a plaintiff in the case, said he was glad the court acted "so timely" because the order opens the possibility for for new House districts to be in place by the time candidate filing periods end in December.

"That means there would be a more diverse Texas Legislature, and I think that's a great thing," said Bledsoe.

He said he was disappointed, however, that the court turned down changes in Ford Bend and Harris Counties, where he said minorities are underrepresented.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat whose district was one of the first identified by the court as racially imbalanced, said voters should be outraged that the state continues to defend its map in court. Anchia is chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus that is a plaintiff in the long-running case.

"It should really bother you that the state is intentionally acting to deny your voting rights," he said. "Every Texan should be upset."

State Rep. Helen Giddings, a Dallas Democrat who chairs the Texas Black Legislative Caucus that has opposed the redistricting maps, said the decision affirms that they are discriminatory and must be redrawn.

"Once again, the State of Texas has been handed a much needed wakeup call from the federal courts." she said. "We cannot continue to discriminate against minority communities and expect the courts not intervene . . . The voter influence of people of color and the effects of their vote should not be diminished."

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, another plaintiff in the case, applauded the decision.

"With this final of several rulings on liability in Texas state redistricting in 2011 and 2013, the case now moves to remedy; this is a most welcome development," he said.

"The state of Texas needs to move on with fixing permanently the rights violations in which it has regularly -- as confirmed by this court's recent rulings -- and continually engaged. The people of Texas need to have confidence that the electoral system in which more and more will participate is untainted by intentional discrimination or discriminatory effects."

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF and lead counsel for the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force in the case, said the ruling affirms that Texas "racially gerrymandered its voting districts and used Latino voters as pawns in doing so.

"With the 2018 election cycle fast approaching, it's time for Texas to stop discriminating against Latino voters and agree to a remedy that will provide equal opportunity to all," she said.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa called the ruling "an historic victory for the sacred voting rights of all Texans" and urged state officials to quickly remedy the issues.

"Once again, Texas Republicans didn't just cheat to win a silly game, they used Jim Crow-era tactics to rig our election system," Hinojosa said. "Make no mistake, Republicans have stolen the voice of Texans at the ballot box for years.

Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey diagreed.

"We oppose any identification of citizens by race, origin, or creed and oppose use of any such identification for purposes of creating voting districts," he said. "If lawmakers are forced to redraw these House districts, we ask that they be drawn accordingly."

House districts affected by Thursday's decision

HD54: Scott Cosper, R-Killeen

HB55: Hugh Shine, R-Temple

HD103: Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas

HD104: Roberto R. Alonzo, D-Dallas

HD105: Rodney Anderson, R-Grand Prairie

HD32: Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

HD34: Abel Herrero, D-Robstown

HD90: Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth

HD93: Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth

Austin Bureau Jeremy Wallace contributed to this story

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