Court gives Texas Legislature deadline for redistricting fix


Highlights

Order is in response to U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found problems with one district in Fort Worth.

If the Legislature declines to act, the federal court panel says it will redraw the Texas House district.

The three-judge federal court panel that found discrimination problems in 11 Texas political districts, only to be overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court on all but one of the districts, issued an order Thursday giving the Legislature a deadline to take action on redrawing the out-of-compliance district.

If no redistricting bill is introduced in the first 45 days of the 2019 legislative session, “or if it otherwise is made apparent that no redistricting legislation will be considered,” the court said it will redraw Texas House District 90 to make sure there’s a fix in place before the 2020 elections.

The 140-day legislative session begins Jan. 8.

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In late June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the three-judge panel erred when it tossed out 10 Republican-drawn state political districts, including a congressional district in Travis County, for intentionally discriminating against minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats, or for using race to improperly gerrymander political boundaries.

The high court agreed with the panel’s finding of racial gerrymandering in House District 90, a Fort Worth-area district that is held by Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., prompting Thursday’s order.

“Before this court undertakes the ‘unwelcome obligation’ of fashioning a remedial plan, the court must afford the Legislature an opportunity to reapportion during either a 2018 special session or the 2019 regular legislative session,” the panel’s order said.

The judges also set a briefing schedule on whether Texas should be placed under federal oversight to ensure that the rights of minority voters are protected in future voting-related changes.

Lawyers for Texas believe the Supreme Court ruling — which found no evidence that Republican lawmakers drew the districts with the intent to discriminate against minority voters — cleared the state of a “preclearance” requirement under the Voting Rights Act.

The civil rights groups, Democratic politicians and voters who sued over the redistricting maps disagree.

“We believe strongly that a preclearance order is warranted by the longstanding pattern of intentional discrimination by the state of Texas in redistricting and other voting-related matters,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that sued over the political maps drawn after the 2010 census.

Briefs from plaintiffs are due at the San Antonio-based court on Nov. 30, and reply briefs from Texas officials are due Jan. 15, according to the order.

The Supreme Court was acutely divided on the issue.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that except for Romero’s district, the maps for the Texas House and U.S. House were legally drawn.

“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 bluntly 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.”



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