The Obama administration is issuing its first civil-rights challenge to a redistricting plan against Texas, the state that will gain the most congressional seats from the once-a-decade redrawing of the nation's political map.
It marks the first challenge by the Justice Department to a redistricting plan this year and it has major political implications: The fight could determine which party stands a better shot of winning Texas's four new House seats, and it potentially represents the opening round of a political fight between the president and the Lone Star State governor who is vying to unseat him, Republican Rick Perry.
Attorneys for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on Tuesday said they will fight the Republican-drawn Texas congressional maps in a preclearance trial before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that it violates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Latino groups, along with Texas Democrats, had alleged that the Perry-signed congressional map granted Latinos no new net opportunities to elect the candidate of their choice even though Latinos accounted for a majority of the population growth that is earning Texas four new House seats. Texas Republicans, led by Attorney General Greg Abbott, foresaw that the Justice Department would deny them preclearance and are currently going to trial against the department in the D.C. District Court to seek approval for the map.
The Justice Department is expected to lay out its specific objections to the maps and stipulations for fixes on Tuesday. So far, the Justice Department has been relatively lenient in clearing state redistricting plans, disappointing some Democrats earlier this summer by approving a Republican-drawn map in Louisiana that denied African Americans a second majority seat. However, given the Latino surge and high stakes in Texas, Democrats were not surprised that Justice Department lawyers found the Texas plan to be discriminatory to Latinos in its intent and effect. Had the Texas plan been OK'd, said Democratic redistricting attorney Gerald Hebert, “I would think that there’s nobody home at the Justice Department.”
Given Texas Republicans’ legal strategy to bypass the Justice Department, the Civil Rights Division’s stance shouldn’t come as a surprise to the GOP either. But according to one GOP redistricting expert who requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly about the process, the fight over the Texas map is now entering the “kind of worst possible world.” The expert predicts the Justice Department's position and large number of interveners in the case could add up to an extended discovery phase and a long and costly trial at the D.C. District Court, which could prompt a federal court in San Antonio to “draw a de novo plan using the current plan as a benchmark.”
The Republican-approved map already has taken plenty of hits in this month’s separate trial before a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio. Latino groups ranging from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund to the League of United Latin American Citizens expressed optimism at Friday’s conclusion of the trial that the judges would rule some of the most blatant elements of the map to be unlawful and discriminatory. “Judges were asking why no new Latino seats were drawn in North Texas,” says Hebert, who participated in the trial.
Another ominous sign for Republicans: The GOP’s defense of the map in San Antonio veered off track when one of their own expert witnesses, Rice University professor John Alford, testified that the congressional map created no new net Latino opportunities.
The San Antonio federal court faces a time crunch: They would prefer to wait to issue their own ruling until the D.C. District Court rules on preclearance, but Texas’s candidate filing period for the March 2012 primary is supposed to open in November. While the federal court could theoretically delay the date of the state’s primary, it’s unclear how far they would be willing to push back the state’s calendar to give the GOP’s map a chance. “If I were in Democrats’ shoes,” says the GOP expert, “I’d draw [the federal court trial] out as long as possible.”
A de novo (from scratch) plan would indeed amount to a disastrous outcome for Texas Republicans, whose line-drawing handiwork would never see the light of day if federal judges impose their own map for 2012. The GOP-approved congressional map created 26 safe seats for Republicans and 10 safe seats for Democrats. Insiders on both sides of the partisan divide say a court-drawn map could cost Republicans the West Texas 23rd District and Dallas-area 33rd District at a minimum and put as many as three additional GOP seats in limbo.
Is it a coincidence that the Justice Department has picked its first redistricting fight over a Perry-signed map that Latino groups allege is discriminatory? Could the GOP have guaranteed more of what it wanted by playing it safe and ceding one of the four new seats as a Latino opportunity district? Those questions, says the GOP expert, may be “imponderables.”