Republicans redrew Texas House districts in 2011 to gain partisan advantage by intentionally and improperly diluting the voting strength of minority Texans, a federal court ruled Thursday.
In a 2-1 decision, the San Antonio-based federal court panel said “invidious discriminatory purpose” underlies the map that set district boundaries for the state’s 150 House members in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
“The impact of the plan was certainly to reduce minority voting opportunity statewide, resulting in even less proportional representation for minority voters,” the court said.
Despite explosive growth in the state’s minority population, the Texas House map not only failed to create any new minority opportunity districts, it eliminating one in Nueces County, said the majority opinion by U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez.
“Discussions among mapdrawers demonstrated a hostility to creating any new minority districts, as those were seen to be a loss of Republican seats, despite the massive minority population growth statewide,” the ruling said.
The ruling followed a March decision by the same panel that voided three congressional districts, including one in Travis County, that also were found to have been improperly drawn in 2011 to dilute the voting strength of Latinos and African-Americans.
But, like the prior ruling, the federal court didn’t mandate any remedies or discuss how to correct the problems in Thursday’s opinion.
However, both rulings — and proposed corrective action — will be discussed during an April 27 conference before the three-judge panel in San Antonio, lawyers said.
Civil rights groups, minority voters and politicians have asked the court to force Texas officials to submit a new congressional redistricting plan by May 5, with a map due from the plaintiffs one week later. Speed is needed because candidate filing for the 2018 primaries begins in November, they argued.
Similar requests could be made for the Texas House maps.
“Plaintiffs will … discuss next steps in ensuring that these violations are corrected before the 2018 elections,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Democrats immediately pressed Republican legislative leaders to allow new maps to be drawn.
“Today’s ruling on the state House map proved what we’ve known all along — Republicans in the Legislature cynically and intentionally divided minority voters so Republicans could enhance their power,” said Grand Prairie’s Rep. Chris Turner, head of the House Democratic Caucus. “This is shameful and unacceptable. New maps must be drawn immediately.”
Writing in dissent in Thursday’s ruling, Judge Jerry Smith of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the majority opinion was based on a misunderstanding of the law and findings that were “so extreme as to defy logic and reason.”
“Despite its heartfelt efforts, this panel majority has badly overreached in finding that Texas used race, instead of partisan advantage, as the predominant factor in the 2011 redistricting,” Smith wrote.
A spokesman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that Smith underscored problems with the opinion.
“We respectfully disagree with the redistricting panel’s 2-1 decision,” Paxton spokesman Marc Rylander said. “We are confident we will ultimately prevail in this case.”
In addition to the rulings on the U.S. and Texas House maps, Texas suffered another legal defeat this month when a Corpus Christi federal judge ruled that the state’s voter ID law was enacted in 2011 with the intent to discriminate against minority voters.
In the latest opinion, Rodriguez and Garcia said the Texas House map was drawn to improperly dilute minority voting statewide and specifically in 12 districts in seven counties — Bell, El Paso, Bexar, Nueces, Harris, Tarrant and Dallas — and in the Rio Grande Valley.
In addition, the judges determined that nine districts were drawn with uneven populations — in violation of the one person, one vote rule — in Bell, Lampasas, Hidalgo and Nueces counties. The judges also found improper racial gerrymandering in Bexar County.
The panel included two Republican appointees. Rodriguez, a former Republican member of the Texas Supreme Court, was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, and Smith was tapped by President Ronald Reagan.
Garcia was appointed by President Bill Clinton and had served as a Democratic member of the Texas House.