In a major victory for Republican leaders in Texas, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a lower court should not have tossed out 10 state political districts, including one in Travis County, for improper racial discrimination.
The 5-4 decision, split along ideological lines, found no evidence that Republican lawmakers drew the districts with the intent to discriminate against minority voters — a significant conclusion that ended the threat of Texas being forced to get federal approval under the Voting Rights Act before changing political districts in the future.
Of 11 political districts that a lower court ordered to be redrawn last year, the Supreme Court identified problems with only one — a Fort Worth-area state House district held by a Democrat that was found to have been improperly gerrymandered by race.
The ruling means Travis County — a Democratic stronghold broken into five congressional districts, four of which are represented by Republicans — will not get new districts. There was a strong possibility that Democrats would have gained at least one seat in the U.S. House had the lower court ruling been upheld.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the Republican-drawn political maps were legal.
“When all the relevant evidence in the record is taken into account, it is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination,” Alito wrote.
In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority went out of its way to produce a desired result — a ruling that ignored substantial evidence of intentional discrimination to allow Texas the continued use of “much of its discriminatory maps.”
“It means that, after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas — despite constituting a majority of the population within the state — will continue to be underrepresented in the political process,” Sotomayor wrote in an opinion joined by other members of the court’s liberal wing, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
In a one-page concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas repeated his belief that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — which prohibits voting practices that discriminate based on race — should not apply to redistricting disputes. This time, Thomas found company as the court’s newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined his opinion.
2 lower court rulings
The long fight over the state’s political districts, drawn earlier this decade after 2010 census numbers were released, arrived at the Supreme Court after a three-judge district court panel concluded last year that Republican mapmakers illegally drew two congressional districts:
• District 35, held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, which the court said was improperly 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, formerly 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 Coastal Bend, the district originally extended from Corpus Christi south to Brownsville and was heavily Hispanic.
In a separate ruling about a week later, the same three-judge panel in San Antonio ordered that nine Texas House districts in Bell, Dallas, Nueces and Tarrant counties be redrawn, saying they were created to discriminate against minority voters.
Of the 11 districts, however, the Supreme Court found problems with only Texas House District 90 — held by Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth — which was found to have been drawn with race as the predominant factor to ensure that Latino voters were in the majority.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the three-judge panel “to consider what, if any, remedy is appropriate” for Romero’s district, the majority opinion said.
Reaction to the ruling
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised Monday’s ruling.
“The court rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts and rejected the misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters,” Paxton said. “This is a huge win for the Constitution, Texas and the democratic process.”
Democrats reacted with anger and disappointment.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, the policy chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the “conservative-leaning court chose to ignore the voter suppression suffered by millions of Texans.”
“Unfortunately, the judiciary has failed to intervene in Republicans’ power grab, and right now there’s nothing stopping them from gerrymandering Texas districts yet again,” Rodriguez said. “We must fight for nonpartisan redistricting reform and a fair 2020 census with a renewed sense of urgency.”
Doggett criticized the court for “ignoring Republican wrongdoing.”
“Real change depends on whether Texans change the composition of the state Legislature after the 2020 census,” he said.
The ruling was the second victory for Texas in a voting rights case this year.
In April, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Corpus Christi federal judge who had struck down a state law requiring voters to show a picture ID at the polls. The appeals court said that by adding additional forms of identification, the Legislature corrected concerns that the law discriminated against minority voters, who were less likely to have acceptable forms of ID under the old law.