Judge-Drawn Voting Maps for Texas Thrown Out by High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out judge-drawn voting districts for this year’s state and federal elections in Texas in a ruling that may help Republicans keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The justices today unanimously told a lower court to create maps more similar to the Republican-controlled state legislature’s plan. The case tested the strength of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects minority rights.

The decision will require maps that “favor Republicans over Democrats,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the law school at the University of California, Irvine, in an e-mail. He called the decision a “big win” for Texas Republicans.

The justices said a three-judge panel in San Antonio was too quick to redraw some of the lines. The high court said the San Antonio court should abide by the legislature’s districts except where they probably would violate the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities.

The legislature’s maps generally favor Republicans while the judges’ maps were more favorable to Democrats.

“Some specific aspects of the district court’s plans seem to pay adequate attention to the state’s policies, others do not and the propriety of still others is unclear,” the justices said in an 11-page decision issued by the court as a whole rather than written by a single justice.

Voting Rights Act

The case tested the Voting Rights Act’s so-called preclearance requirement, under which jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations must get federal approval before changing their district lines or election procedures.

That provision, which covers all or parts of 16 states, is designed to ensure that states and other jurisdictions don’t dilute the election power of minority groups.

The justices were considering the case on a fast-track schedule because of the impending Texas primary, now set for April 3 after a judge delayed the vote for a month. Texas officials have said they will need a map in place by Feb. 1 to hold the primary in April.

Texas gained four congressional seats after the 2010 census showed the state added almost 4.3 million new residents. Hispanics accounted for about 65 percent of that increase, according to the census.

The maps will influence the makeup of the Texas congressional delegation. Democrats are seeking to regain control of the U.S. House, where Republicans control the chamber 242-192, with one vacancy.

Perry Approved Maps

The court dispute stemmed from maps the legislature drew last year after the census. Governor Rick Perry, who later became a Republican candidate for president, signed the maps into law. Minority groups sued to challenge them.

The three-judge panel blocked the Republican plan from taking effect for 2012 and substituted court-drawn interim maps on a 2-1 vote. The majority said the state maps couldn’t be used because they hadn’t received preclearance from a different court, as required under the Voting Rights Act.

Texas contended that the judges in San Antonio overstepped their bounds and should have deferred to the legislature’s plans in the absence of evidence that the state had violated the voting law.

The Supreme Court said the lower court should have used the legislature’s maps as a “starting point.” The justices pointed to several instances where the three-judge panel fell short in crafting new maps for the state House.

Different Interpretations

The two sides offered differing interpretations of the decision.

“The court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it’s clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement.

Luis Roberto Vera Jr., national general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said in an telephone interview that 75 percent of the districts in the court-drawn congressional map are identical to those in the legislature’s plan.

“The Supreme Court didn’t reject anything,” said Vera, whose group helped defend the court-drawn maps at the Supreme Court. “The Supreme Court is telling the San Antonio court it has to give deference to the state plan and tell the Supreme Court why it made the changes it made to its map.”

Anthony Gutierrez, a Texas Democratic Party spokesman, said that “we could still end up with a similar map.”

Timing Question

The timing is complicated because the preclearance issue itself is before a three-judge panel in Washington, where trial started Jan. 17, with closing arguments scheduled for Feb. 3. Texas sought preclearance from the Washington court, as is permitted under the Voting Rights Act, rather than seeking approval from the Justice Department.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the constitutionality of the preclearance requirement in a 2009 ruling that narrowed the provision’s scope. The requirement’s constitutionality wasn’t at issue in the latest case.

Justice Clarence Thomas today issued a concurring opinion, reiterating his view that the preclearance requirement is unconstitutional.

The cases are Perry v. Perez, 11-713; Perry v. Davis, 11-714; and Perry v. Perez, 11-715.

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