U.S. court voids 2 area congressional districts

Updated Aug 15, 2017
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett speaks at a town hall on health care at the First United Methodist Church on July 16. TAMIR KALIFA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ruling that the Legislature created congressional maps with the intent to discriminate against minority voters, a federal court Tuesday ordered two districts to be redrawn, including one based in Travis County and another that includes part of Bastrop County.

In its unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel gave Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton three days to advise the court on “whether the Legislature intends to take up redistricting in an effort to cure these violations and, if so, when the matter will be considered.”

If the Legislature doesn’t act, the San Antonio-based court will hold a hearing starting Sept. 5 to begin drawing new maps.

The ruling has the potential for major changes in Travis County, a Democratic stronghold that was broken into five congressional districts — four represented by Republicans and one by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Court voids 3 Texas congressional districts

The court ruled that Doggett’s seat, District 35, must be redrawn because Republicans improperly used race as a tool for partisan goals — minimizing the number of Democratic districts while attempting to unseat Doggett by boosting the Hispanic population and extending the new district to San Antonio, making it more likely that voters would choose a Latino candidate.

Efforts to remove Doggett, however, were unsuccessful.

The judges also voided 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. The district was improperly drawn to reduce the strength of Latino voters, the court ruled.

Previously, the district extended south to Brownsville and was heavily Hispanic.

The ruling was the latest setback for Republican efforts to create maps after the 2010 census gave the state four new congressional seats.

The maps adopted by the Legislature in 2011 never went into effect. After Democrats and civil rights groups sued, the federal three-judge panel ordered changes to correct for perceived violations of the Voting Rights Act in time for the 2012 elections.

In 2013, the Legislature adopted the court-drawn map, but the legal challenge continued, grinding on for half a decade.

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The court began by examining the 2011 maps, issuing a 2-1 ruling last March that said the Republican-drawn districts intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters or improperly used race to accomplish political goals.

Then the court shifted its focus to the 2013 maps.

Paxton had argued that Texas couldn’t be sued for the 2013 maps because the state adopted districts drawn by the court itself. On Tuesday, the court rejected that argument — this time unanimously — noting that the districts held by Doggett and Farenthold were identical in the 2011 and 2013 maps.

“There is no evidence that the Legislature engaged in any meaningful deliberation in 2013 to cleanse away such discriminatory intent, and in fact they intended to maintain any such discrimination,” the ruling said.

Paxton called the ruling puzzling because “the Legislature adopted the congressional map the same court itself adopted in 2012, and the Obama-era Department of Justice did not bring any claims against the map.”

“We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to decide whether Texas had discriminatory intent when relying on the district court,” Paxton said.

Doggett noted that the court again found that the Republican-drawn map was intended to discriminate against minority voters.

“What Republicans did was not just wrong, it was unconstitutional,” he said.

The court sided with Texas on several issues, rejecting arguments that districts around Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth had to be redrawn to increase minority voting strength in some areas.

And, although the judges had previously found problems with District 23 — held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes — Monday’s ruling said that district didn’t have to be redrawn — potentially good news for Hurd, who is expected to face a difficult re-election in the state’s only swing congressional district.

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The three-judge court hasn’t yet ruled on a similar challenge to districts drawn for the 150 seats in the Texas House. Tuesday’s ruling didn’t indicate when that decision might come.