U.S. judges in Texas may not rule on claims that Governor Rick Perry and Republican lawmakers distorted election maps to keep Latinos out of office until a panel of Washington judges decides if the districting complies with federal voter protections, lawyers in the case said.
Closing arguments are under way today in San Antonio federal court, where Latino activists and state attorneys have faced off in a two-week trial over Texas’s new congressional districts.
“The San Antonio court will hold back and wait until the D.C. court decides these are legally enforceable maps or not,” said Dallas election lawyer Michael Li, who is monitoring the Texas redistricting fight. “If the D.C. court decides they are legal, the San Antonio court will then rule on the racial gerrymandering claims. If the D.C. court finds the new maps violate the Voting Rights Act, the issue will come back to San Antonio, and the judges here will draw new maps.”
As the three-judge panel in San Antonio has weighed evidence from dueling redistricting and demographic experts, a different three-judge panel in Washington has taken up the same challenge on a different track.
Texas sued the Obama Administration in the District of Columbia federal court, requesting “pre-clearance” for the state’s new maps under the federal Voting Rights Act, a step required of all states with a history of voting-rights violations.
The state gained four new seats in Congress after adding 4.3 million residents in the 2010 census. About 65 percent of that growth came from Hispanics, who sued state lawmakers on claims the Republican-controlled legislature drew maps that lacked any new districts that favored the election of Latinos.
Joaquin Avila, a veteran voting rights lawyer representing Texas Hispanic lawmakers in the case, said the San Antonio trial was held in advance of the D.C. court ruling to save time. Texas candidates must declare for office in November, and the Washington court may not rule until October or November.
“We really couldn’t wait until the DC court decided to start our trial here,” Avila said in an interview during the trial. “The San Antonio court wanted to have all the evidence in so it can customize its opinion based on the ruling that comes out of D.C.”
During the San Antonio trial, Latino activists presented evidence they claim shows Texas lawmakers were warned the new election districts discriminated against Hispanics.
“The state’s argument is that nothing they’ve done is intentional, but every congressman warned them this map would violate the Voting Rights Act and wouldn’t pass Justice Department approval in Washington,” Luis Vera, a lawyer representing the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, in the trial, said in an interview yesterday.
Vera said the U.S. Supreme Court standard is “if you know what the effect of an action is going to be, that’s intent because you knew what was going to happen.”
State lawyers denied that legislators racially gerrymandered the new maps to prevent the election of Latinos. Instead, they claimed lawmakers distorted districts along political party lines to favor Republicans over Democrats, which is legal. Republicans hold 23 of Texas’s current 32 congressional seats.
Deputy Attorney General David Schenck said the new map doesn’t disadvantage minorities because white voters support minority candidates.
“Whites are voting for and electing African-American and Latino candidates at record levels” in Texas, Schenck told the judges. “They just happen to be Republicans.”
In Washington, the Obama Administration has until Sept. 19 to say whether it supports or rejects Texas’s map in the “pre-clearance” lawsuit.
“Then we’ll know whether the Justice Department is for us or against us,” Vera, the LULAC attorney, said.
This is the second time Perry, 61 and a Republican candidate for president, has been sued over Texas’s election maps. When Republicans seized control of the state legislature and redrew districts in 2003 to penalize Democrats, Hispanics sued on claims the maps were racially discriminatory. Experts at the trial last week testified that Latinos most often support Democratic candidates.
That earlier challenge, lead by LULAC, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found Texas’s election maps in violation of the Voting Rights Act and redrew them. The maps currently being challenged are an attempt by Perry and state lawmakers to reconfigure districts back in favor of Republicans, Vera said.
“But they’re doing it on the backs of Hispanics,” he said.
Perry, who approved the legislature’s map in July, declared his candidacy for U.S. president in August.
“The legislature determined and approved the map, and the governor signed it and believes it went through a fair process,” Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman, said in an interview at the start of the trial.
“The state is confident that the new legislative and congressional maps comply with both the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General’s office, said in an e-mail today on the conclusion of the San Antonio trial.
The Texas case is Perez v. Perry, 5:11-cv-0360, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio). The Washington case is Texas v. the U.S., 1:11-cv-1391, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).