Washington (CNN) – The Supreme Court has tossed out the Texas redistricting map for congressional and legislative seats drawn up by a federal court, giving a partial victory to GOP lawmakers.
In an unsigned opinion issued just 11 days after holding oral arguments, the justices on Friday said a revised map that differed greatly from the one created by the legislature used ambiguous standards.
“To the extent the [federal] District Court exceeded its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of ‘the collective public good’ for the Texas Legislature’s determination of which policies serve ‘the interests of the citizens of Texas,’ the [district] court erred,” said the Supreme Court ruling.
At issue are competing maps for the Texas state legislative and congressional districts – created first by Republican lawmakers that favored their political base, and later by a federal judicial panel to give minorities greater voting power.
The court-drawn map was imposed after Democrats and minority groups in Texas challenged the original plan approved by the GOP-led state legislature.
The political stakes are huge: Texas gains four new congressional seats based on the newly completed census, and this ruling could help determine whether Democrats can wrest control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans.
The legal stakes are just as important – creating standards courts must use when evaluating voting boundaries. This is the latest election-related dispute for the justices this year. Continuing, separate challenges to campaign spending laws and state voter identification laws will soon be presented to the court.
The ruling sent the issue back to the Texas-based federal court to resolve. All sides –including the justices– openly expressed concern whether a final resolution from three federal courts now considering the Texas maps –including the Supreme Court– would come in time before the November elections.
With no clear map currently to rely on, Texas voting districts and candidacies remain in political limbo. This latest high court ruling will compress the time office-seekers can eventually file and run for congressional and legislative seats. The state’s primary election is set for March, but could be rescheduled for as late as June.
The high court did work quickly to resolve a complex, time-sensitive dispute. The 13-page opinion noted no dissents. It said the special judicial panel of federal judges in San Antonio ignored the benchmark map created by the Republican-controlled legislature.
“Because the [federal] District Court here had the benefit of a recently enacted plan to assist it, the court had neither the need nor the license to cast aside that vital aid,” said the decision. “To avoid being compelled to make such otherwise standardless decisions, a district court should take guidance from the state’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan. That plan reflects the state’s policy judgments on where to place new districts and how to shift existing ones in response to massive population growth.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had filed an emergency appeal in November, saying a map approved by a federal panel in San Antonio was was an unconstitutional intrusion into the legislative process and was “fatally flawed.”
“Courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the state,” said Abbott in a statement after the high court opinion was issued. “The court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it’s clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles.”
The current court-ordered maps would increase the number of districts dominated by minorities, especially Hispanic voters. Texas is among several mostly Southern states that are required under the landmark Voting Rights Act to have any changes to voting laws or rules approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
In a separate appeal two years ago, conservatives on the high court seemed to believe that key enforcement section of the law –known as Section 5– was unconstitutional. It was unclear whether the court now has the majority to strike down the provision, which would free Texas and other states from federal oversight.
Another sticking point is that a separate federal court in Washington is deciding whether to approve– or “preclear”– the original plan approved by the legislature, a requirement under the Section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act. A bench trial in that case began this week, with a ruling expected early next month.
That leaves three federal courts involved in the voting map dispute.
Some election law analysts said the state received the upper hand in the high court’s opinion. “The Supreme Court held that the three-judge court erred in starting its redistricting plan from scratch. It should have started with the state’s plan, and then adjusted to the extent the plan violated the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution,” said Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor and editor of the Election Law Blog. “So this is a big win for Texas, and will require the drawing of districts much more likely to favor Texas’s interim plan, and therefore favor Republicans over Democrats favored by the three-judge court’s original map.”
Texas is getting four new congressional seats –more than any other state– after the latest census showed its population grew by 4 million people. The plan drafted by the Texas three-judge panel would give minorities the majority in three of those congressional districts, and could give Democrats more seats statewide. With 36 congressional seats, the fate of Texas could have national implications in the fight over control of the House.
“Ninety percent of the growth in this state in the last decade was minority growth,” said Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democratic state representative. “Sixty-five percent of that alone, Latino. So you would expect these new congressional districts would reflect the minority populations that created the opportunity.”
Fischer leads the Texas House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the key plaintiff in the lawsuit against the legislature’s original map.
Other opponents of the state-drawn map noted the high court refused the GOP-led legislature’s request to immediately implement the state plan.
“Today’s decision affirms the critical role of the federal Voting Rights Act in protecting minority voters,” said Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). “We believe the [state] plans discriminate against Latino voters and are pleased that the Supreme Court refused to allow Texas to proceed with its discriminatory redistricting plans.”
The Hispanic-led coalition said the GOP-drawn map would mean zero net seats for minority voters in both congressional and legislative seats.
Under state rules, redistricting plans approved by the legislature can be challenged in court, with judges having the power to craft alternate maps.
Republicans in the state have a super-majority in the legislature, meaning they needed no Democratic support to pass their plan. A similar party split a decade ago led Democratic lawmakers to flee to neighboring Oklahoma in an effort to kill the 2000 redistricting bill.
The state’s Republican governor, former presidential candidate Rick Perry, supported the map passed by the legislature, but has not signed it into law while the plan is challenged in court.
All states are required to redo their voting boundaries following the recently completed nationwide census, conducted once every 10 years.
The high court appeals are Perry v. Perez (11-713, 11-715) and Perry v. Davis (11-714).
(Originally published by CNN reporter Bill Mears on 1/20/2012)