Texas political maps to go on trial


Highlights

One-week trial in San Antonio will determine if voting districts discriminate against minority voters.

Republican-led Legislature approved the U.S. House and Texas House maps in 2013.

In a confrontation six years in the making, a federal court in San Antonio will devote the upcoming week to a jam-packed trial that will determine whether Texans have been electing members of the U.S. House and Texas House in districts that discriminate against minority voters.

If the challenge to the maps succeeds, many Texans can expect to be voting in new districts during the 2018 primary and general elections — giving Democratic candidates a boost in areas redrawn to give greater clout to Latino and African-American voters.

The trial before a three-judge panel begins Monday. The days will be long, starting at 8 a.m. and ending about 6 p.m., and the testimony will include a dense blend of legal theory, statistical analysis and expert opinion.

Don’t expect immediate gratification,. When the trial closes Friday or Saturday, the judges will take the matter under advisement — though a written ruling is expected relatively quickly as the court labors under looming election deadlines.

State officials have advised the court that any new maps would have to be ready by around Oct. 1 to meet deadlines for setting precinct lines and to allow candidate filing for the 2018 primaries to begin, as scheduled, in mid-November. Complicating the timing will be the inevitable appeal that the losing side will make directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If new maps are needed, the judges likely will order additional input on how to redraw district boundaries, lawyers said Friday.

The court began its analysis by looking at maps the Legislature drew in 2011 — issuing separate 2-1 rulings earlier this year that found voting rights violations in three congressional districts and concluded that the Texas House map was drawn to improperly dilute minority voting statewide and in 12 specific districts.

As a result, one area of potential change is Travis County, a Democratic stronghold that was divided into five congressional districts and is represented by four Republicans and one Democrat.

The San Antonio court determined that District 35 — held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — was improperly drawn with race as the predominant factor to minimize the total number of Democratic seats and to attempt to oust Doggett by creating a heavily Hispanic district with its population weighted toward San Antonio.

For the upcoming trial, the court shifts its attention to maps the Legislature adopted in 2013 — including many districts, like Doggett’s, that were unchanged from the 2011 boundaries found to be discriminatory.

To speed matters, the judges required both sides to submit pretrial briefs outlining their arguments and identifying witnesses.

The briefs make it clear that a central point of contention will be the court’s own actions in 2012, when the three-judge panel approved new districts after the maps drawn by the Legislature in 2011 were rejected for violating the Voting Rights Act by limiting the voting strength of Latinos and African-Americans.

Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that Texas cannot be held liable for discrimination because the Legislature adopted the court’s interim 2012 maps, with few changes, in 2013.

“The 2013 Legislature could not have drawn the boundaries of districts … predominantly on the basis of race because it did not draw district boundaries at all; it adopted the district boundaries implemented by this court,” Paxton’s brief said. “The 2013 Legislature did not make a decision to place any voters within or without a particular district.”

What’s more, Paxton said, the court-approved maps were drawn under instructions by the U.S. Supreme Court to “take care not to incorporate … any legal defects in the state plans” passed in 2011.

Lawyers for the civil rights groups, minority voters and Democratic politicians challenging the maps accused Paxton of being disingenuous.

First, they noted, the court earlier this year ruled that the maps adopted by the Legislature in 2011 improperly restricted the rights of minority voters in several districts. That’s important, the lawyers said, because the 2011 maps formed the basis of the court’s 2012 interim maps.

More importantly, many of the 2011 districts found to violate the Voting Rights Act — including Doggett’s — were adopted with little or no change by the Legislature in 2013 and are currently in use, “compromising the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Texas minorities,” they told the court.

“They’re trying to hide the ball,” Jose Garza, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, told the American-Statesman. “But the manner in which they drew the maps in 2011 carried forward and infected the 2013 districts.”



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