Texas Voter District Maps Rejected by U.S. Judges

Redrawn congressional and state assembly districts in Texas were rejected by a federal court in Washington, dealing a blow to Governor Rick Perry and the Republican-controlled legislature’s efforts to redraw the state’s political landscape.

The three-judge panel, in a decision yesterday, said Texas failed to show that the maps for state assembly and congressional districts created by the legislature last year “do not have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“We conclude that Texas has not met its burden to show that the U.S. Congressional and State House Plans will not have a retrogressive effect, and that the U.S. Congressional and State Senate Plans were not enacted with discriminatory purpose,” according to the 72-page opinion.

The ruling leaves unsettled the question as to whether the state’s plan to use temporary maps approved by a different court will face legal challenges that could derail the November election.

“If they try to hold the November elections under the interim maps, we’ll all be running to the Supreme Court for a stay,” Luis Roberto Vera Jr., general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said of minority-rights groups opposing the maps. He spoke in a telephone interview.

‘Flawed Ruling’

The election will proceed as planned under the interim maps, which were drawn up by a federal court in San Antonio and used for the primary election on May 29, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott also said his office “will immediately take steps to appeal this flawed decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Perry supports the appeal, Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an e-mail.

“This flawed federal court ruling must be swiftly appealed to protect Texas from the federal government’s infringing on our state’s rights,” Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who is attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, said in an e-mailed statement.

If Texas doesn’t offer the San Antonio judges a remedial redistricting plan for use in November, then the panel must decide whether the interim election districts created for the primaries offer enough relief or must be adjusted further so they can be used in the general election, Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Texas Legislature’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said on a conference call with reporters.

Boundaries ‘Adjusted’

Voting-rights groups will meet to decide whether to ask the San Antonio court to make changes to the interim maps “in advance of the 2012 election, or whether it is sufficient to wait for relief in 2014,” he said. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus opposed the state’s maps.

Michael Li, a Dallas election lawyer, said that while Texas will definitely hold November elections, some district boundaries may have to be “adjusted” to correct discrimination identified in yesterday’s ruling.

If such boundary adjustments are necessary, Li said in an e-mail, “there will need to be ’jungle primaries’ that day,” in which both parties hold primary elections in those districts on the same day as the general election, followed by a run-off between the top two vote recipients a month later.

1996 Election

“That happened in 1996 in several congressional districts” in Texas, Li said.

The Justice Department was pleased with yesterday’s ruling, Nanda Chitre, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Texas sued the administration of President Barack Obama in July 2011 seeking so-called pre-clearance for the state’s new maps under the Voting Rights Act, a step required of all states with a history of voting-rights violations.

The legislature redrew electoral maps after the state grew enough to gain four seats in Congress, adding almost 4.3 million residents since 2000, according to the 2010 census.

The U.S. objected to two proposed congressional districts and five state assembly districts. Several minority groups objected to an additional state senate district.

U.S. district judges Beryl Howell and Rosemary Collyer and Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith ruled in November that Texas used an “improper standard or methodology” when determining whether minorities had the ability to elect their preferred candidates.

Bench Trial

Griffith and Collyer were appointed to the court by President George W. Bush. Howell was appointed by Obama.

During a two-week bench trial in January, judges heard testimony from Texas legislators, their staffs and expert witnesses who analyzed voter data in the state.

In Congressional District 23, or CD 23, a sprawling district stretching from San Antonio to El Paso in far western Texas, the judges said Texas tried to make the district more Republican without changing its Hispanic population levels. The evidence showed that more than 600,000 people were moved into or out of the district to address overpopulation of 149,000, according to the ruling.

“The mapdrawers consciously replaced many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of CD 23’s Anglo citizens,” Griffith said in the opinion. “In other words, they sought to reduce Hispanic voters’ ability to elect without making it look like anything in CD 23 had changed.”

‘Retrogressive’ Plan

Since minorities accounted for 89 percent of the state’s population growth, Texas was required to draw at least one of the new congressional districts in a way that favored minority candidates, the Justice Department argued.

“We have concluded that Texas’s failure to draw a new minority district does in fact make the enacted plan retrogressive,” Griffith said.

The judges found that the congressional plans were made with discriminatory purpose, though they said there’s no direct evidence of it. During the past four decades, Texas has “found itself in court” during every redistricting cycle and has lost every time, the judges added.

Griffith, in the opinion, said that the new voter maps carved so-called economic engines out of black districts in Houston and Dallas. The Astrodome, the Medical Center, a rail line and Houston Baptist University were all removed from the district of U.S. Representative Al Green, a Democrat, as was his district office.

‘No Surgery’

“No surgery was performed on the districts of Anglo incumbents,” Griffith said. “In fact, every Anglo member of Congress retained his or her district office. Anglo boundaries were redrawn to include particular country clubs and, in one case, the school belonging to the incumbent’s grandchildren.”

Texas is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that need approval from either the Justice Department or a special panel of federal judges in Washington to change election procedures under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The state is awaiting a ruling from a different three-judge panel in Washington on the legality of a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. Texas officials told the court the state needs a ruling by the end of the month in order to implement the measure for the November election.

The case is Texas v. U.S., 11-cv-01303, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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