Divided court focuses on jurisdiction debate in Texas redistricting case

Hugh Fox
April 26, 2018

That court ruled that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and black voters when they drew boundaries for congressional and state House districts.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the leading liberals on the bench, peppered Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller about the timing of the state's appeal to the Supreme Court, which the minority groups say was meant to short-circuit the lower court's move to have the Legislature draw new political maps or have the courts hold new redistricting hearings.

The high court in September put on hold two lower court rulings that had invalidated a series of Texas electoral districts. While the challenge to the 2011 maps was underway, the state drew even newer district maps, interim maps, ordered by the district court. That's not just our opinion, that's the federal court's ruling. In August 2017, the San Antonio federal court ruled that the new maps were unconstitutional because they did nothing to "cure any taint" that remained from the original maps. However, the question before the High Court is whether the Texas districts violate the Voting Rights Act by diluting the votes of minorities in Texas. The courts response could potentially turn Texas slightly bluer.

The state's lawyer, Scott Keller, denied any discriminatory motive, saying, "This was not the legislature trying to pull a fast one on anyone".

The Legislature should have taken it as a "starting point" instead of using it as a "mask" for past discrimination, argued Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who is representing some of the map challengers. Rick Perry from calling an emergency legislative session to adopt the interim map.

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The court's more liberal justices, led by Justice Breyer, expressed the view that an injunction is necessary for the court to hear this case or the court will be inundated with appeals from non-final redistricting cases. And federal courts scolded the Texas Legislature for engaging in a pattern of racial discrimination in every redistricting cycle since 1970. At the time, the district court warned that it was not done working through the claims against the 2011 maps.

"Texas Republicans are fighting to maintain the status quo of systematically rigging the game against people of color, end of story".

Large swaths of the state from Dallas to San Antonio out towards El Paso have had their congressional and state House districts disputed since 2011. Some legal analysts say that if Texas prevails in its appeal from the lower court proceedings, it could either slow or short-circuit them altogether, protecting the current maps through the 2020 elections.

Tuesday's oral arguments were the culmination of nearly a decade of fighting over districts drawn by the Texas Legislature after the 2010 census.

The position of the court's frequent swing vote, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, was unclear, as he said little during the arguments.

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Someday, perhaps when your grandchildren have grandchildren and the Cowboys have been pried away from some Jones scion's cold, dead hands, Texas will adopt statehouse and congressional maps that are minimally acceptable to all interested parties.

In that case, any new maps imposed at the lower court level could be appealed anew to the high court. He invoked a quip once quoted by the late Justice Antonio Scalia, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

It doesn't matter that Texas wanted to end the litigation, Riggs said.

If the Supreme Court sides with Texas, that gambit may prove to have been successful.

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