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Court voids 3 Texas congressional districts


Highlights

The 2-1 ruling said Texas Republicans drew a map that intentionally diluted minority voting strength.

The long-awaited ruling stemmed from a hearing that ended in August 2014.

Ruling that Republicans redrew the Texas congressional map to intentionally discriminate against Latino and black voters in a “rushed and secretive process,” a federal court panel invalidated three districts, including one in Travis County, in an order issued late Friday.

However, in voiding the districts, drawn by the Texas Legislature in 2011, the San Antonio-based panel did not mandate or discuss any remedies to correct the problems.

But the long-awaited ruling has the potential to create more districts with larger populations of Latino voters “and probably more Democratic districts, which would be good for Democrats in Texas and also nationally,” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

The 2-1 ruling described a chaotic, hurried process that led to the 2011 congressional maps, redrawn to add four new districts, thanks to the state’s rapid population growth.

It was a time of “strong racial tension and heated debate about Latinos, Spanish-speaking people, undocumented immigration and sanctuary cities, and the contentious voter ID law,” the court said.

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The court criticized Republican lawmakers for providing “misleading” information about the new map’s impact on minority voters and noted that Democrats and minority advocates were shut out of the map-drawing process.

“The rushed and secretive process suggests that defendants did want to avoid scrutiny of whether their efforts in fact complied with the (Voting Rights Act) or were intended to do so, or whether they were only creating a facade of compliance,” said Friday’s order by U.S. District Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia.

Writing in dissent, Justice Jerry Smith of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the majority’s order tended to “miss the forest for the trees.”

“Texas redistricting in 2011 was essentially about politics, not race. All sides concede that — whether it is a good thing or not — Texas has a strong correlation between race and party,” Smith wrote. “It naturally follows that actions taken to disadvantage Democrats will disproportionately affect non-Anglo voters, regardless of the intent.”

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.

Central Texas

The majority opinion said District 35 — held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — was improperly drawn with race as the predominant factor to minimize the number of Democratic districts and to attempt to unseat Doggett by boosting the Hispanic population, making it more likely that voters would choose a Latino candidate.

“The political motive does not excuse or negate that use of race; rather, the use of race is ultimately problematic for precisely that reason — because of their political motive, they intentionally drew a district based on race in a location where such use of race was not justified by a compelling state interest,” the ruling said.

By drawing Doggett’s district with a majority Hispanic population extending into San Antonio — dividing a community of African-American voters in East Austin in the process — the Republican-controlled Legislature was able to “create the facade of complying” with the Voting Rights Act while eliminating an existing Democratic district, the panel ruled.

As a result, the Democratic stronghold of Travis County was broken into five congressional districts, four of them represented by Republicans. One of those Republican districts extends from Central Austin to the north side of San Antonio; one runs from East Austin to Burleson, 15 miles south of downtown Fort Worth; another extends from western Travis County to Tomball, 30 miles northwest of downtown Houston; the fourth Republican district stretches from Northwest Austin to Bryan and Waco.

South and West Texas

The panel also invalidated two Republican-held districts that judges said were drawn to dilute the strength of Latino voters:

• District 27 — held by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi — which includes the Coastal Bend along the Gulf of Mexico and stretches north to include southern Bastrop County. Previously, the district extended south to Brownsville and was heavily Hispanic.

• District 23 — held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes — a sprawling section along the Mexican border that extends from near El Paso to the San Antonio area.

The ruling, based on a trial that ended in August 2014, could have a ripple effect. By requiring that the three districts be redrawn, the judges’ order would change the lines on an undetermined number of nearby districts.

Friday’s order also said the Legislature intentionally diluted votes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area “through packing and cracking” — a technique that spreads minority voters across several districts to ensure that they cannot elect representatives of their choice.

The order, however, did not invalidate any districts in the Metroplex, most likely because districts there had been redrawn in 2013 and the court panel was assessing the legality of the 2011 map, Li said.

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Although the order also did not specify how the invalidated maps should be corrected, normal practice would be to have the Texas Legislature redraw the congressional lines, Li said.

The order comes a year before the 2018 party primaries and about four years before the Legislature will begin the redistricting process anew based on the 2020 census.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the order.

Paxton also could ask the panel to halt the effect of its ruling while the appeal proceeds. If denied, Texas could ask the Supreme Court to block the ruling while it considers an appeal.

“Tonight is a victory for the voting rights of all Texans,” Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said Friday. “Republicans have ensured that the dark days of discrimination in Texas continue to loom, but the sun will soon shine. In time, justice prevails.”



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