Texas lawmakers didn’t comply with the Voting Rights Act when they drew new maps for congressional, state Senate and state House districts, a federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled Tuesday.
“Texas … seeks from this court a declaratory judgement that its redistricting plans will neither have ‘the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, or [language minority group]”, the judges wrote. “We conclude that Texas has failed to show that any of the redistricting plans merits preclearance.”
Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately said — via Twitter — that the state will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Today’s decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution,” he said a few minutes later in a press release. “The Attorney General’s Office will continue defending the maps enacted by the Texas Legislature and will immediately take steps to appeal this flawed decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Washington, D.C., court’s decision applies to the maps originally enacted by the Texas Legislature — so the November elections will proceed as planned under the interim maps drawn by the federal court in San Antonio.”
The court wasn’t ruling on interim maps drawn by federal judges — the maps in use for the current election — but on those drawn by state lawmakers last year. Lawyers are still looking through the opinions for anything that might disrupt the current elections.
Nina Perales, litigation director for MALDEF — the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund — said there might not be time to draw new maps before the November elections even if they’re warranted. One question is whether problems exposed in the plans drawn by legislators “infected” the plans drawn by the federal judges in San Antonio. “I don’t think it’s feasible to change the lines for November,” she said. Perales called the federal court ruling “the final nail in the coffin” for the plans drawn by state lawmakers, especially since the San Antonio judges outlined several other legal problems with those same maps earlier this year.
The outcome of Abbott’s appeal and the analyses being done by the various parties in the redistricting legislation will determine which lines, if any, get redrawn before the 2014 elections.
Some have made up their minds. “The question of whether we’ll go back to the district court and ask for additional relief, the answer is yes,” said Jose Garza, attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “Will we ask if this will be implemented for the November elections? We’re still analyzing that.”
Texas and other states with histories of discrimination have to have federal approval for any changes in voting laws and political maps. Instead of going to the U.S. Department of Justice for that “preclearance,” Abbott’s office opted to ask the federal court in D.C. That court has had the maps in hand for months — its hearings began last November; while it was working on a decision, another federal court, meeting in San Antonio, put its own redistricting maps in place. Those court-drawn maps are being used in the current elections while those drawn by the Legislature are still tangled in appeals.
“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,” the judges said in their opinion. “Accordingly, we deny Texas declaratory relief. Texas has failed to carry its burden that Plans C185, S148, and H283 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.”
That section of the voting law is designed to keep new maps from eroding the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice. The court singled out problems in congressional districts 23 and 27 and in several state House districts.
The court decided crossover districts and coalition districts — those in which a racial majority has to rely on votes from other groups to win — are protected, according to the attorney general’s staff. The Supreme Court has never done that, and that finding is part of their objection to Tuesday’s decision. Daniel Hodge, the state’s first assistant attorney general, said the standard used by the court to decide whether minority districts were protected is unconstitutionally vague, making it impossible for a state legislature to parse the ruling and meet that standard. What’s more, he says, this part of federal voting law is supposed to be used to decide whether a state eroded existing minority voting rights — not whether a state should have created new ones to meet population growth, as the D.C. court appeared to do in this ruling.
The state also maintains that the interim maps adopted by federal judges in San Antonio take care of all of the problems delineated in the ruling. The maps in use now, Hodge argues, satisfy the objections raised by the judges about the maps drawn by the Legislature.
Other parties take issue with many of those points; several said on Tuesday that the maps in use now will probably be litigated or redrawn in light of Tuesday’s ruling. That might happen after the November elections, but the battle over the political maps doesn’t appear to be over.
* * * * *
Reactions to the ruling
Matt Angle, the Lone Star Project
“The Court’s decision is a damning indictment of Rick Perry and other Texas Republican leaders who, in a cynical attempt to hold on to power, engaged in intentional discrimination against Texas Latino and African American voters. Every fair-minded Texan familiar with the details of redistricting knew Republican leaders were violating the law. Greg Abbott and Texas Republican will stop at nothing to hold power – even if it means spending millions in Texans hard-earned tax dollars to defend illegal discriminatory redistricting plans. I’m sure he’s burning up more tax dollars as we speak.”
Gary Bledsoe, Texas NAACP
“We are grateful for the decision issued today by the 3 Judge bi-partisan panel sitting in D.C. The panel looked at the evidence objectively and applied the law to the facts. It is notable that the bi-partisan opinion concluded that intentional discrimination existed in the manner that the State of Texas drew the new Congressional districts for each of the African American representatives from Texas. The opinion quoted each of the 3 African American Congresspersons in regards to how the economic engines were taken out of their districts, as well as how their Congressional offices were all taken out of the districts drawn by the Legislature. Of important note to the panel was the fact that all white Congresspersons maintained their districts, presenting a stark contrast. This opinion further demonstrates the continued need for the Voting Rights Act, particularly Section 5 of that Act.”
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
“The federal court has turned its back on the rights of Texas voters and has chosen to side with Attorney General Eric Holder in his politically motivated actions against Texas. The Texas maps both respect the rights of voters and comply with the Voting Rights Act. This flawed federal court ruling must be swiftly appealed to protect Texas from the federal government’s infringing on our states’ rights. It is my hope that the appeal to the Supreme Court shows that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional in its unequal treatment of states.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus
“This afternoon, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia unanimously denied preclearance, or approval, for the three legislative election maps that Texas adopted last year. The three-judge panel determined that the original maps were retrogressive and/or drawn with discriminatory intent. With regard to Senate District 10, represented by Senator Wendy Davis, the court said, “we conclude that the Texas legislature redrew the boundaries for SD 10 with discriminatory intent. This critical decision is a great victory for those who have fought – in the past year and over previous generations – to protect the right to vote. Those in control of the Capitol tried to limit the rights of our state’s diverse population and to dilute the strength of minority voices by carving communities into different districts. Fortunately, the court did not allow these actions to stand. The November elections will proceed as planned under the interim maps approved by the federal court in San Antonio. While it is unclear what will happen beyond that, we hope that when it comes to redistricting, legislators will approach their task more fairly. Texas must do better to protect communities of interest and Texans’ right to elect the candidates of their choice.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin
“Today’s ruling is a victory for voting rights and all those who believe in fair elections. Three judges, including two appointed by President George W. Bush, have upheld our contention that this crooked map was intentionally discriminatory. My personal focus remains on ensuring that families along the I-35 corridor continue to have a strong voice in Congress.”
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston
“Today is a victory for the people of Texas. I am thankful that this federal court has preserved the integrity of ‘one man, one vote’ by enforcing the Voting Rights Act. The Republican-drawn maps were a prime example of why Texas maps must be precleared in the first place: the maps did not represent the demographics of our state and blatantly disenfranchised minority voters. While this does not affect the current maps for November’s election, today’s opinion ensures that we are one step closer to having maps that allow voters to elect representatives of their choice. I was called as a witness by the U.S. Department of Justice in this case, and I would like to thank Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff for their vigorous defense of the Voting Rights Act and their stellar performance in federal court.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston
“I applaud the D.C. Court’s rejection of preclearance for Texas’ redistricting maps. The court has ruled these plans discriminate against minority Texas voters but, most importantly, they upheld the heart of the Voting Rights Act. The court clearly validated the importance of preclearance in voting procedures in states under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Everyone may not like it, but Texas and other states have a sad and unfortunate history of discriminating against minority voters, and not just in the bygone past. I am pleased the court continued to stress the need for vigilance on this critically important issue.”
State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas
“As I have said all along, and as a member of the House Redistricting Committee who worked closely on this issue, there is a process of rules, constitutionality, and legality of laws that must be followed and complied with when drafting such important legislation as the redrawing of boundary lines for any elective offices in our state and nation. Today’s ruling by the District of Colombia’s federal district court reaffirms my earlier position that the issues of fairness, equality, and legality were not adequately followed when the legislature adopted and redrew the lines for our U.S. Congressional, Texas Senate and House of Representatives maps.”
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth
“I am pleased with the court’s decision, especially knowing that this court has agreed that those in charge in Austin were neither honest nor transparent with Texans during their overly partisan and discriminatory redistricting process. I am proud to stand up for Senate District 10 voters on this issue and will continue to fight for them on their priorities such as education funding, job creation, and affordable college tuition.”
Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus
“The ruling affirms what we have continuously held true and central to the Voting Rights Act, which is that we will no longer roll over and let others dismantle the core of African American districts. The rights of all communities must be respected. I look forward to the opportunity for the Texas Legislative Black Caucus to rectify the harms done and have an honest, open and meaningful redistricting process next Session, as the Federal Court justices have demanded.”
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas
“Today’s ruling by a federal three-judge panel adds yet another layer of proof to Democrats’ contention all along that Texas went too far in redrawing Congressional, Senate and state House maps during last year’s legislative session. The court ruled that the maps in fact violate the federal Voting Rights Act. The state in this regard had to prove that the maps as passed by the Legislature would not discriminate by limiting the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choosing. They failed. So futile was their case that the state’s lawyers attempted to shift the longstanding burden of proof from the state, to the Justice Department (DOJ) and the defendants. The court also said no to this argument. This ruling comes with just over two months remaining before the November 6 elections where some have stated their willingness to do whatever it takes to make President Barack Obama “a one-term president.” That willingness, in addition to redrawing state and congressional maps in a manner ruled discriminatory by the DOJ and now the courts, also extends to passing Voter ID laws across the country that will further suppress the will of those who disagree with their efforts to turn back the clock, from having their voices heard at the polls. Today’s ruling is also a victory for my North Texas colleague Senator Wendy Davis, Democratic Congressional District 33 nominee Marc Veasey, and friends from the Texas NAACP, MALDEF and LULAC who fought the Republican maps tooth and nail from Austin and San Antonio all the way to Washington.”
ROSS RAMSEY is editor of The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.