- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
With elections looming, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it will review two lower-court rulings that ordered Texas to redraw 11 political districts found to be discriminatory.
Texas officials appealed the August rulings, which invalidated two congressional districts and nine Texas House districts, saying they were intentionally formed by Republicans in the Legislature to discriminate against minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats.
Friday’s decision to combine the Texas cases and hear oral arguments in the spring came almost four months after the Supreme Court, acting on a Texas request, blocked the lower court’s efforts to begin redrawing the districts to allow time to consider whether to review the rulings.
The stakes in the case are high. Texas voters will choose candidates in the March 6 primaries according to the current districts, but the Supreme Court’s ruling is not expected until summer, when primary winners will be campaigning in advance of the November general elections.
What’s more, if the court upholds the finding that the Texas maps were drawn to intentionally discriminate, the state could be required to get federal approval for changes to its voting laws.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the high court’s action, calling the lower-court rulings “inexplicable and indefensible” and saying they could produce electoral chaos if allowed to stand in an election year.
“We are eager for the chance to present our case before the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Paxton, a Republican who has argued that the two Texas maps were not intended to discriminate against minority voters.
Eric Holder Jr., chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and U.S. attorney general under former President Barack Obama, said the Texas case gives the Supreme Court a chance to send the message that “racial gerrymandering and intentional vote dilution is unconstitutional and diminishes the voice of minority citizens.”
“By ending illegal gerrymandering, we can ensure that our elected officials represent the diversity of American communities,” Holder said.
The yearslong fight over the state’s political districts, drawn earlier this decade after 2010 census numbers were released, rose to national prominence on Aug. 15, when a three-judge federal court panel in San Antonio concluded that two Republican-drawn congressional districts violated the U.S. Constitution and the 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 in Bell, Dallas, Nueces and Tarrant counties to be redrawn, saying they also were created to discriminate against minority voters.
Friday’s action focused even sharper attention on voting rights at the Supreme Court, which is already hearing partisan gerrymandering challenges to districts in Wisconsin and Maryland, raising the potential for far-reaching changes to the way political districts are drawn.
And the court’s docket might soon expand. Also on Friday, Chief Justice John Roberts ordered groups that challenged congressional districts in North Carolina — which were struck down earlier this week for giving Republicans an improper advantage over Democrats — to respond by Wednesday to an appeal by state officials.
In Friday’s announcement, the court said nothing about a related appeal by the Texas Democratic Party, which argued that the two maps should be tossed out for improper partisan gerrymandering.
Even so, Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the state Democratic Party, praised the Supreme Court’s action, saying it shined a light on a Republican “pattern of discriminating against Texans of color.”
“We will again be before the Supreme Court to examine Texas Republicans’ stacking of the deck through systemic discrimination against people of color,” Hinojosa said. “This is a welcome development on the eve of MLK weekend, when we should all reflect on how discrimination continues to exist.”