Tuesday was supposed to be the day a San Antonio-based federal court began redrawing Texas political districts found to discriminate against minority voters.
Instead, two days of hearings were canceled after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito halted matters at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argued that the lower court mistakenly ruled that two congressional districts and nine Texas House districts had to be redrawn because they were created to discriminate against Latino and African-American voters.
In their bid to overturn that ruling, Abbott and Paxton also asked the high court to let Texas use the 11 districts, as drawn, in the 2018 primary and general elections, arguing that the lower court waited too long by issuing its decisions in mid-August, creating a risk of voter confusion and delays in next year’s March primaries.
Alito, who is responsible for legal matters arising from Texas, last week temporarily halted action in the case and ordered those challenging the maps to respond to the request from Abbott and Paxton.
Filed Tuesday, that response argued that the Texas officials jumped the gun on their appeal because the lower court hasn’t issued a final order — or decided on new district maps — leaving nothing to appeal.
What’s more, they argued, delaying the case any longer would force “the citizens of Texas to vote yet again in unconstitutional congressional districts.”
“The court should not countenance Texas’ attempts to introduce further delay and multiply the proceedings in this court in an attempt to run out the clock,” said the lawyers, who represent civil rights groups, minority voters and Democratic politicians who challenged the district maps.
The Supreme Court has no deadline to issue its ruling on whether Texas can appeal and, if so, whether to allow current districts to be used in 2018 while that appeal continues.
The outcome of the case could have significant impact on congressional districts in and around Travis County, a Democratic stronghold that was broken into five districts, four represented by Republicans, after the 2010 census.
One new map submitted to the San Antonio court, for example, would divide Travis between two districts — District 25, which would combine the southern half of the county with most of Hays County, and District 10, including the northern half of Travis with all or part of 10 counties to the south and east, including Bastrop County.
Had the districts been in place in 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton would have narrowly won in District 10 and solidly won in District 25, said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The changes were proposed after the three-judge court ruled Aug. 15 that two congressional districts were drawn in violation of the Voting Rights Act and Constitution and had to be redrawn:
• District 35, held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, which the court said was gerrymandered along racial lines to provide Doggett with a Latino primary challenger and to eliminate another district with significant Hispanic and African-American populations that consistently voted for Democrats.
• District 27, held by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, which the court said was improperly drawn to reduce the voting strength of Latinos. Now stretching from southern Bastrop County to the Gulf of Mexico, the district originally extended south to Brownsville and was heavily Hispanic.
In a separate ruling about a week later, the court also ordered nine Texas House districts to be redrawn in Bell, Dallas, Tarrant and Nueces counties, saying they also were created to discriminate against minority voters.
Tuesday’s response brief to the Supreme Court focused on the challenge to congressional districts. A similar brief on the Texas House maps is due Thursday.