- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
By blocking a lower court’s efforts to redraw 11 Texas political districts found to be discriminatory, the U.S. Supreme Court has given the state a clear path to continue using its current maps for the U.S. House and Texas House in the 2018 elections.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 order, delivered Tuesday night, temporarily blocked efforts to redraw the districts, giving state officials time to appeal twin rulings by a three-judge federal court panel that said Republicans in the Legislature intentionally drew district boundaries to discriminate against minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats.
The order gave no reason for the decision, stating only that the San Antonio-based, three-judge panel must stop redrawing districts until the Supreme Court rules on Texas’ appeal. The high court’s liberal wing — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — would not have halted efforts to draw new districts.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the order, saying he was “eager to proceed with this case in the high court.”
Paxton had argued that, with candidate filing set to begin in mid-November, the late-summer effort to redraw the districts would create confusion and potentially delay the March primaries.
Critics said the Supreme Court’s intervention will let Texas continue using voting districts that discriminate against Latino and African-American voters.
“We are disappointed that there is another hurdle in this process preventing some Texas voters from having fair districts drawn as quickly as possible,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “However, we are optimistic that on full appeal these unconstitutional districts will be struck down once and for all.”
Riggs said the Supreme Court’s action all but guarantees that the 2018 elections will be held using current districts.
Texas has 60 days, with time extensions freely given, to submit its appeal arguing why the three-judge panel’s finding of discrimination should be overturned. That pushes the process well beyond Oct. 1, when officials said final maps are needed to avoid postponing the primaries.
Those challenging the maps could speed the process by filing a cross-appeal and asking the Supreme Court for an expedited review, but that decision has not yet been made, Riggs said.
Although getting new maps for the 2018 elections “is looking pretty bad,” Supreme Court rulings in other cases have prompted districts to be redrawn under tighter time lines, Riggs said.
“You can push this really late if you need to. I wouldn’t say it’s totally off the table, but it’s a challenge,” she said.
The delay by the Supreme Court was Paxton’s second victory in a week in a voting rights case.
After tossing out the state’s voter ID law as discriminatory on Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi was preparing to rule on whether Texas should be required to receive federal approval for voting law changes. At Paxton’s request, however, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week temporarily halted action in Ramos’ court to give Texas time to appeal her ruling.
The fight over the state’s political districts, drawn earlier this decade after new census numbers were released, came to a head on Aug. 15, when the three-judge panel concluded that two congressional districts violated the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act:
• 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 same court ordered nine Texas House districts to be redrawn, saying they also were created to discriminate against minority voters.
Hearings to begin work on new districts, set for last week in San Antonio, were canceled after Justice Samuel Alito, who oversees legal matters arising from Texas, blocked proceedings at Paxton’s request and ordered additional information to be provided to the full court.