Texas redistricting fight terribly tangled again

Posted Friday, Jul. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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norman The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a landmark voting rights case last week released Texas from federal supervision of its election laws and procedures for the first time since 1972.

But the clarity of that ruling was fleeting.

This week, attorneys for minority groups filed motions with separate three-judge panels in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., asking that Texas be returned to federal oversight under a section of the Voting Rights Act left intact by the Supreme Court.

Court watchers — and the San Antonio court itself, which held a hearing Monday — are taking the new challenges very seriously. Lawyers for the state want the whole thing dismissed.

“There’s no question this is new territory for everyone,” wrote Dallas attorney Michael Li in his widely followed (among people who follow arcane politics) Texas Redistricting blog at txredistricting.org.

For those who don’t usually dig deep into details but still want to keep up, the initial bottom line is that it could take the courts months to work this out. And there aren’t all that many months left before the political machinery must start moving for party primary elections next March.

The candidate filing period for those primaries is set to begin Nov. 9, with the elections March 4.

Extended courtroom complications could put legislatively drawn district maps in legal limbo, delaying the primaries or leading the courts to draw temporary maps — both of which happened last year.

Here’s a simplified synopsis. For more depth, read Li’s posts on his blog and what legal expert Lyle Denniston wrote at SCOTUSblog.com.

Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and has renewed it several times, most recently in 2006.

Last week, the Supreme Court decided an Alabama case involving the act’s Section 5, which calls for approval from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., for changes in election laws or procedures where there’s a history of racial discrimination at the polls.

The Supreme Court left Section 5 intact but shifted attention to the act’s Section 4 and its congressional formula for deciding which places are subject to Section 5’s advance approval requirement. The court said the formula, last revised almost 41 years ago, no longer properly identifies current discrimination.

A crucial part of the Section 4/Section 5 process is that it requires jurisdictions (including Texas, since 1972), to prove that any proposed election or voting changes are not discriminatory.

Last year, Texas sought the Washington, D.C., court’s approval of redistricting maps drawn by the Legislature in 2011. Several groups of plaintiffs asked the San Antonio court to block those maps under yet another part of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2.

Section 2 and the Constitution forbid election-related discrimination. The key difference is that the burden is on plaintiffs to prove that any changes in law or procedure are discriminatory.

Finally, one more part of the Voting Rights Act, Section 3, says a jurisdiction recently found to have acted with discriminatory intent can be subjected to Section 5’s pre-approval requirements.

Last year, the Washington, D.C., court found discriminatory intent in the Legislature’s 2011 maps.

State attorneys say the 2011 maps and everything having to do with them are invalid because of the Supreme Court’s new ruling and because the Legislature adopted new maps this year.

The plaintiffs want the San Antonio court to first decide whether there was discriminatory intent in the 2011 maps before considering the 2013 maps.

If there was, they want Texas to be subjected to federal advance approval, at least on redistricting and perhaps on all matters involving elections.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9

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