Court Throws Out Texas Congressional Map
Updated at 4:35 p.m.
In a lengthy, sweeping decision, a federal court in Washington on Tuesday unanimously struck down Texas' new congressional map, ruling that the plan was enacted with "discriminatory purpose" against Hispanics protected under the Voting Rights Act. The ruling will not affect this year's elections, but barring successful appeal, Texas would have to redraw its maps before 2014.
The three-judge panel ruled that Texas legislators drew a map that intentionally denied fair representation to Hispanic voters during the state's decennial redistricting process. On a narrower, 2-1 basis, the court also ruled that the new map "does not entitle minorities to proportional representation."
Texas state Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, said his office would appeal the decision. "Today's decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution," said Abbott, in a statement. "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 court ruled that, even though Texas gained four congressional seats in redistricting, it did not gain any Hispanic "ability districts," seats where Hispanic voters have the power in numbers to elect a preferred candidate. What's more, the court found "discriminatory purpose" in the plan, writing that the maps were crafted with the purpose of diluting minority voting power.
"The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern is 'coincidence,'" the court ruled. "But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed. It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results." The judges also noted that they did not even need to consider the full body of evidence presented before them to conclude that Texas acted with discriminatory intent in crafting the maps.
The intervenors in the lawsuit argued that Texas's new Hispanic ability seats, the 34th and 35th Districts, were counteracted by the loss of three ability districts: the 23rd, 25th, and 27th seats. The court agreed unanimously in the case of the 23rd and 27th Districts and split on the 25th.
The 27th, won in an upset by GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold in 2010, was majority-Hispanic but is now majority-white, and the court concluded fairly quickly - in the space of two paragraphs - that the district "will no longer perform for minority voters."
In the 23rd District, which has been the site of court battles in the past, the tinkering was less obvious. Although the newly drawn version of the 23rd District remained just as Hispanic as the previous version, "the mapdrawers consciously replaced many of the district's active Hispanic voters with low-turnout voters" in order to increase the influence of the district's white citizens, the judges wrote. "In other words, they sought to reduce Hispanic voters' ability to elect" candidates of choice "without making it look like anything" had changed, the judges continued. The court cited emails in which Texas state House Speaker Joe Straus asks the legislature's map-drawer to "leave Spanish Surname [Registered Voter] and [turnout numbers] the lowest" in order to help protect freshman Republican Rep. Quico Canseco.
Texas argued in dissent that the 23rd and 25th Districts were never Hispanic ability districts to begin with, in which case the state would have gained a seat of that type. But a federal district court redrew the 23rd District as a Hispanic "opportunity" district in 2006, and the D.C. court found that Hispanic voters in the district had indeed taken advantage of that opportunity over the past six years.
Texas filed suit in U.S. District Court to have its new election maps pre-cleared under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires some jurisdictions to prove that their election laws "have neither the effect nor the purpose of abridging minority voting rights." In addition to the new congressional map, the court also found that new maps for the state House and state Senate each violated one provision of that statute.
This year's elections are proceeding under different, interim maps developed by a separate federal court in San Antonio. Those interim maps are not directly affected by the decision, though Texas redistricting expert Michael Li says the San Antonio court could use the D.C. ruling as an impetus to adjust the interim maps between now and Election Day, which is just 10 weeks away.
"They would have to discuss what to do since the primaries already happened and how to do that," Li said, noting the state would argue that any changes could be pushed to the next election cycle. "But, without any inside information, I would not be surprised to see changes to the interim maps."
Looking forward, unless Texas is successful in appealing the D.C. court's decision, the state will be forced to once again redraw their election maps prior to the 2014 midterm elections. The court noted that it is the fourth time in as many decennial redistricting cycles that Texas has been taken to court over their new maps -- and they have lost in court each time.