A federal court that just five years ago approved Texas’s map of congressional districts now says the very same map is illegal because it discriminates against Hispanics — sparking a new court fight over how states draw the lines for their U.S. House seats.
The three-judge panel in the Western District of Texas said it was rushed in 2012 but now — despite three intervening congressional elections — says the lines need to be changed before voters go back to the polls in 2018.
The changes must fix districts represented by Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican, and Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat, which the judges said were both drawn to limit the influence of Hispanic voters in federal congressional elections.
“In those areas, the district lines were motivated by a desire to discriminate on the account of race, and they continue to have that effect,” U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez wrote in the opinion for the court.
The court said the Texas legislature can draw new lines, or else the court will do it.
State Attorney General Ken Paxton said he’ll force the issue to the Supreme Court, potentially adding another weighty voting-rights case to the justices’ docket. They’re already slated to hear a momentous case out of Wisconsin dealing with political gerrymandering, while the Texas case deals with racial gerrymandering.
States rewrite their House maps every decade after the census, in what has always been a bare-knuckles political brawl.
In Texas, where the process was controlled by Republicans the last go-around, the legislature’s original map was challenged in 2011. While that map was being challenged in court, a federal judge stepped in and drew an interim map to be used in 2012.
A year later the state adopted the judge’s map as the official lines for the rest of the decade.
But opponents said the court’s map was also flawed.
In the new decision this month the federal court says the legislature acted with discriminatory intent because it accepted the court’s map as-is, rather than analyzing or developing its own.
Mr. Paxton said the courts’ seemingly conflicted rulings show why they should be cut out of the process.
“Judges should get out of the business of drawing maps,” he said in a statement. “We firmly believe that the maps Texas used in the last three election cycles are lawful, and we will aggressively defend the maps on all fronts.”
Gary Bledsoe, the Texas state president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had challenged the map, said fighting to preserve the map is the latest instance of Texas engaging in discrimination.
“In every round of redistricting since the Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965, Texas has been found guilty of discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities,” said Mr. Bledsoe.
Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law, said the Supreme Court must take the case, but it could delay hearing it until after the lower court redraws maps on its own.
He said if the justices do take up Texas’s appeal now instead of waiting for the court to redraw the districts, it’s a “pretty good indication” the high court would be reversing the lower court’s finding.
The high court struck down North Carolina’s congressional district map earlier this year after finding evidence of racial gerrymandering, and it will take up a partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin during its upcoming term in the fall.
The Wisconsin case centers on whether drawing electoral districts to strengthen one political party over another is unconstitutional.
In the past, the high court has said racial gerrymanders are illegal but political line drawing has been accepted.
Renee Cross, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said redrawing lines isn’t anything new for Texas, where lawmakers regularly try to maximize gains in the country’s second-largest state.
“Some of this is somewhat deja vu because we’re seeing the parties in power doing whatever they can do to keep that power,” she said. “For the Republican Party, they see this as one way to somewhat hold off the changing demographics of the state.”
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