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Supreme Court Could Reshape Texas Political Districts for Midterms

The justices will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in a case over the state's legislative and congressional maps, which have been accused of discriminating against black and Latino voters.

Texas Redistricting
Texas state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa looks at maps on display prior to a Senate Redistricting committee hearing in 2013.
(AP/Eric Gay)
Texas voters went to the polls March 6 for the state's primaries. But they could find themselves voting in different districts for the next election, depending on the outcome of a case before the Supreme Court.

The court will hear oral arguments Tuesday on a case in which Texas lawmakers are accused of drawing state legislative and congressional maps that discriminated against black and Latino voters.

The issues in the case, Abbott v. Perez, date back to 2010. The decennial Census would have created additional districts where Latino candidates could have been viable options, but the state instead carved out districts safe for white candidates, the suit alleges. The state has been using maps that a lower court said intentionally discriminated against minority voters and were unconstitutional.

“The big question before the Supreme Court is, if the trial court found there were more districts that were flawed, should Texas have to fix those districts?” says Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund.

In Dallas County, Latino voters were packed into two districts, which boosted the number of white voters in an adjacent district. In Nueces County, districts were drawn to “undermine Latino voting strength,” according to a three-judge panel in San Antonio. In Tarrant County, lawmakers used race as the predominant factor in drawing a state house seat. In Bell County, Latino voters were split into two districts, which boosted the portion of white voters in the district, according to the federal court.

The districts' irregular shapes and borders are suspect, the plaintiffs say.

“If you look at the shape of those districts, beyond the legal arguments they just don’t pass the eye test," says Rafael Anchia, a Texas state representative and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Anchia was referring specifically to state House districts 103 and 104 in Dallas. "They are very dramatic in their zigging and zagging."

The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibits packing minorities into one district as a way of dampening their power in legislative bodies. The law also prohibits breaking up districts that give minorities the opportunity to elect favorable candidates.

The Voting Rights Act also set up the practice of preclearance, a process in which jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices must gain federal approval to change voting practices or adopt new legislative maps. Texas is among nine states that must pre-clear such changes, along with counties and municipalities in six additional states.

Since 1970, each Texas redistricting plan has come under federal scrutiny.

The current case’s origins began with a 2011 lawsuit filed against the state. State lawmakers redrew district maps following the 2010 census, but a federal panel deemed the those maps unconstitutional and them to be redrawn. Having missed the deadline for federal preclearance, the federal panel ordered a temporary map, which only addressed a few of the districts in question. In nine state legislative districts and two Congressional districts, the lines were drawn in such a way as to discriminate against minority voters, according to the lower court. What were considered temporary maps by the court were made permanent by Texas lawmakers in 2013.

The maps were again challenged.

The state of Texas would ultimately appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, a move the plaintiffs claim is premature. The lower court didn’t issue an injunction, which would be the normal route for a case like this to move to the Supreme Court. However, attorneys for Texas say they appealed to the high court because the legal challenge at the lower court would prevent the state from using the maps in the 2018 elections.

Several states’ attorneys general have filed amicus briefs on behalf of Texas. The attorneys general in Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin have argued that federal interference into drawing voter districts undermines a state’s right to sovereignty.

“States cannot efficiently hold free and fair elections where a district court can issue an order, cause states and voters to act in reliance on that order, and then simply change its mind on the eve of a deadline to redraw district maps for the 2018 elections. Such actions result in tremendous cost and have destabilizing consequences for the States. Moreover, the district court’s arbitrary approach to the Texas Legislature’s actions disregards the deference afforded States on this fundamental question of State sovereignty,” wrote Louisiana state Attorney General Jeff Landry and state Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Murrill.

The court could decide to send the decision back to the federal panel, or it could uphold the lower court’s decision and force Texas to redraw the maps.

While it's possible the Court could order new maps be put in place in time for the general election, the timing of the case makes it unlikely, according to the plaintiffs.

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