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.”
Texas voting cases in federal court
1. A three-judge panel in San Antonio will determine if U.S. House and Texas House districts, adopted by the Legislature in 2013, discriminate against minority voters. A weeklong trial begins Monday.
2. A U.S. judge in Corpus Christi will determine if Texas should be penalized for adopting a voter ID law found to discriminate against minority voters. Texas officials argue that recent changes by the Legislature cured problems. Final briefs are due July 17.
March ruling on U.S. House districts
A federal court panel invalidated three congressional districts, ruling:
• District 35 — held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — was improperly drawn with race as the predominant factor to minimize the number of Democratic districts and to attempt to unseat Doggett by boosting the Hispanic population, making it more likely that voters would choose a Latino candidate. The district, previously centered in Austin, was redrawn to include a sizable area in San Antonio.
• 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, was drawn to dilute the strength of Latino voters. Previously, the district extended south to Brownsville and was heavily Hispanic.
• District 23 — held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes — a sprawling section along the Mexican border that extends from near El Paso to the San Antonio area, was drawn to dilute the strength of Latino voters.
April ruling on Texas House districts
The three-judge panel ruled the Texas House map was drawn to improperly dilute minority voting statewide and specifically in 12 districts in seven counties — Bell, El Paso, Bexar, Nueces, Harris, Tarrant and Dallas — and in the Rio Grande Valley.
In addition, the judges determined that nine districts were drawn with uneven populations — in violation of the one person, one vote rule — in Bell, Lampasas, Hidalgo and Nueces counties. The judges also found improper racial gerrymandering in Bexar County.
The three-judge panel
The panel deciding the fate of Texas political maps includes two Republican appointees. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, a former Republican member of the Texas Supreme Court, was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, and Judge Jerry Smith of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was tapped by President Ronald Reagan.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia was appointed by President Bill Clinton and had served as a Democratic member of the Texas House.
What’s at stake
The Texas House tilts heavily in favor of Republicans, so even if Democrats are able to pick up a few seats with maps drawn to strengthen minority voting clout, expect the GOP to maintain a stout majority. Currently, Republicans hold a 95-55 edge.
Republicans also outnumber Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation. Democrats hold just 11 of Texas’ 36 U.S. House seats. Only one district has been competitive in recent elections — the 23rd Congressional District held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. If new maps put more districts in play, however, Texas Democrats would have a chance to help the party in its bid to flip the balance of power in the House in 2018.