Texas Voter Maps Blocked as Racially Biased by U.S. Judges
Texas can’t use its current voter maps in the upcoming congressional midterm elections after a panel of federal judges ruled districts approved by state Republican lawmakers illegally discriminate against Hispanic and black voters.
The three-judge panel in San Antonio gave the state three days to say if and when the Texas Legislature will fix the congressional map, which the judges concluded still carried the discriminatory taint of districts lawmakers originally drew in 2011 with the intent to squelch rising Latino voting strength.
If Texas doesn’t intend to correct biased districts, the court will hold a hearing to solicit advice before redrawing the map on its own, the panel said Tuesday.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, expressed disappointment with the ruling, which he claimed didn’t square with the court’s approval of essentially the same district boundaries five years ago.
Every voter map Texas has created since 1970 has been challenged in court by civil rights groups representing the minority citizens who’ve steadily eroded the state’s historic white majority.
Texas gained four new congressional seats after the 2010 U.S. Census counted 4.3 million new Texans, almost 90 percent of whom were Hispanic or black. Yet state lawmakers drew no new districts that favored minority voters, who tend to choose Democratic candidates.
For six years, Texas defended the maps its Republican-controlled legislature originally created in 2011 as legally allowed political gerrymanders designed to handicap Democrats, not minorities. Challenges over the maps have bounced through multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, ever since.
Texas said the maps currently in use, which the Legislature adopted in 2013, can automatically be presumed unbiased because they were drawn by the San Antonio judges as a quick fix for the 2012 elections, during an early stage of the six-year redistricting fight.
Critics of Texas’s voter maps claimed state lawmakers took partisanship too far and intentionally diluted Hispanics’ rising political clout by stuffing them into overcrowded minority districts or splintering them into districts controlled by white voters.
Those opponents repeatedly stressed that the San Antonio judges, in tweaking the interim maps to give Texas something to use in 2012, only had time to tweak the most egregiously biased boundaries the Legislature had created. This left substantial racial discrimination baked into the voting districts Texans have used in every election since, they said.
During a six-day trial in early July, the San Antonio judges repeatedly stated that their interim maps were never intended to be permanent solutions. They pressed the state’s witnesses and lawyers to explain why lawmakers hadn’t taken the opportunity to fix obvious problem spots before adopting the interim maps. Texas repeatedly refused to answer, claiming “legislative privilege” shielded lawmakers’ “thoughts and mental impressions” from questions.
“Specific portions of the 2011 plans that this court has found to be discriminatory or unconstitutional racial gerrymanders continue unchanged in the 2013 plans, their harmful effects continuing to this day,” the judges wrote Tuesday in a 107-page decision. “The fact that this court made changes to the statewide plans and the Legislature then adopted the court’s plans does not change this fact.”
The judges called Texas lawmakers out for trying to game the system by adopting hastily tweaked interim maps the court never intended for use beyond the 2012 presidential election. “The decision to adopt the interim plans was not a change of heart,” the judges said. “It was a litigation strategy designed to insulate the 2011 or 2013 plans from further challenge, regardless of their legal infirmities.”
Paxton said Tuesday the portion of the ruling that went against Texas “is puzzling considering the Legislature adopted the congressional map the same court itself adopted in 2012, and the Obama-era Department of Justice did not bring any claims against the map.”
“We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to decide whether Texas had discriminatory intent when relying on the district court,” he said in an emailed statement.
While the Obama administration strongly supported minority activists challenging Texas’s original maps, by the time the court challenge addressed the current version of the maps last month, the Justice Department — under President Donald Trump — was no longer participating in the fight.
Tuesday’s decision boosts the odds Texas may be forced back under federal supervision for any future changes state lawmakers make to election rules. As a repeat voting rights violator, Texas was under federal electoral oversight for more than three decades. That supervision ended in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act requirement that states and cities with histories of voter discrimination get prior federal approval, a process known as preclearance.
The case is Perez v. Abbott, 5:11-cv-00360, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio).