On Friday, a three judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, once again, ruled that a handful of Texas congressional districts drawn by the Republican-dominated state Legislature in 2011 discriminated against black and Hispanic voters and violated the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. Texas Congressional Maps Are Struck Down for Discrimination:
It is the latest development in a long-running and racially charged redistricting case that locked Democratic lawmakers, minority groups, the Obama administration and the Texas Republican leadership in a legal battle for nearly six years. Democrats and civil-rights lawyers accused the majority-white Texas Republican leadership of drawing district maps in ways that diluted the voting power of Democratic-leaning minority voters, accusations that Republicans denied.
“The court’s decision (and findings of fact and conclusions of law) exposes the Texas Legislature’s illegal effort to dilute the vote of Texas Latinos,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented a coalition of Latino organizations that sued Texas over the redistricting maps. “Moving forward, the ruling will help protect Latinos from manipulation of district lines in order to reduce their political clout.”
The next steps in the case were unclear. Texas is likely to appeal the decision, and because of the legal dynamics, any appeal would go directly to the Supreme Court. The process of redrawing the maps may be delayed not only by an appeal but also because the San Antonio panel has yet to rule on another aspect of the case, the district maps drawn for the state’s House of Representatives.
The Texas attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The judicial panel’s decision came eight months after a federal appeals court ruled in a separate case that the state’s tough voter-identification law needed to be made less restrictive because it discriminated against minority voters who lacked the required government-issued photo IDs. The Republican-led Legislature that passed the voter ID bill in 2011 also passed the contested redistricting maps.
Friday’s decision means that in the span of months, two federal courts in two voting-rights cases found that the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature discriminated against black and Hispanic voters.
“This decision is a big deal, because the court found that Texas intentionally discriminated against African-American and Latino voters, setting the stage for Texas to potentially be put back under a preclearance requirement,” said Michael Li, an expert on Texas redistricting and a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The San Antonio judges did not address whether they would order Texas back under federal oversight, stating only that “those issues remain to be determined.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a partial victory to a group of Virginia voters who argued that the 12 state legislative districts in which they live were the result of racial gerrymandering. The justices agreed with the challengers that a lower court had applied the wrong legal standard when it upheld all 12 districts, and the court ordered the lower court to take another look at 11 of those districts. Opinion analysis: Court sends majority-minority districts back for another look in Virginia gerrymandering case.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in a challenge to two North Carolina congressional districts, one of which a lower court had described as a “textbook example of racial gerrymandering.” One of the lasting impressions from that oral argument (as well as the Virginia redistricting case that was argued on the same day) was that the justices seemed to be tired of redistricting cases.
Rick Hasen has an analysis of the Texas case at his Election Law Blog. Analysis: Texas Redistricting Decision Major Victory for Voting Rights Bar and May Pave Way for Texas to Be Back under Federal Supervision. Quick take:
The ruling, if the Supreme Court allows it to stand, will lead to new maps that increase minority voting representation, helping both Hispanics and Democrats in Texas. There is good reason to believe the Supreme Court would allow this ruling to stand, as it closely tracks Justice Kennedy’s views of the issues in this area. And perhaps most importantly, the ruling provides the predicate to put Texas back under federal approval for its voting rules, for up to 10 years, either in this case or in the pending Texas voter ID case. (The one caveat here is that it would be the AG Sessions’ DOJ which would do the preclearance, and I would not expect them to aggressively enforce the non-discrimination requirement).
The U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to clarify its rulings on intentional racial discrimination in congressional and legislative redistricting map cases.