A panel of federal judges in San Antonio has ruled that the Republican-controlled Legislature used racial gerrymandering to discriminate against black and Hispanic voters when boundaries were drawn for congressional districts in 2011.
The 166-page decision, issued late Friday by three judges in San Antonio, gave Democrats hope that new maps could turn over more seats in Congress in 2018. But in a 2-1 decision, the judges didn’t propose an immediate fix, and Texas could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Specifically, the judges pointed to Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, taking in most of the Texas-Mexico border and represented by Republican Will Hurd of Helotes; Congressional District 27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and Congressional District 35, a Central Texas district represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.
The judges also found racial gerrymandering in Congressional District 26, which includes parts of Tarrant County and is represented by Republican Michael Burgess.
“Plaintiffs have proved intentional vote dilution through packing and cracking in DFW,” the ruling states, referring to the practice of concentrating minority voters in one district or splintering their votes among many.
The judges noted “strong racial tension and heated debate about Latinos, Spanish-speaking people, undocumented immigrants and sanctuary cities” that served as the backdrop in the Legislature when Texas adopted the maps and passed a high-profile voter ID law. Those tensions are flaring again over President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration, and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is also demanding tough crackdowns on so-called sanctuary cities.
“The record indicates not just a hostility toward Democrat districts, but a hostility to minority districts, and a willingness to use race for partisan advantage,” U.S. District Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia wrote in their opinion.
In a strongly worded dissent, U.S. District Judge Jerry Smith said the Department of Justice had “overplayed its hand and, in the process, has lost credibility.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately comment on the ruling.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat who represents the more recently drawn 33rd Congressional District that stretches across the Metroplex to Dallas, cheered the ruling.
“After a six-year-long court battle, I am proud to announce that we are one step closer to restoring the voices of thousands of otherwise disenfranchised Texas voters,” Veasey said in a statement. “While the creation of the congressional district I currently represent may have resolved some of the court’s issues with the 2011 maps, this monumental decision will ensure that Hispanic and African American voters in the DFW Metroplex and throughout Texas are accurately protected at the ballot box for years to come.”
Tarrant County impact
The case examined the composition of several North Texas districts, including charges that “Latino and African American voters in Dallas and Tarrant Counties have been splintered and fragmented in both 2011 and 2013 to diminish their ability to effectively participate in the political process.”
The state contended “that politics, not race, was the metric used to draw lines in DFW” and that the use of race “was not discriminatory and did not violate the Equal Protection Clause,” the ruling states. It also argued that the growing Hispanic population in Dallas-Fort Worth “is not sufficiently geographically compact” to create a “Latino opportunity district.”
Regarding racial motives, the ruling states “it is undisputed in this case that voting in Texas is strongly racially polarized,” noting that 93 of the 101 Republican members of the House in 2011 were Anglo, while only 8 of the 49 Democrat members were Anglo.
The judges looked at questions regarding the 6th Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and the 26th Congressional District represented by Burgess, R-Pilot Point.
In the 6th, which includes Ellis and Navarro counties and links to parts of Tarrant and Dallas counties “with divergent finger-like extensions,” the judges found that “although there is some evidence indicating that race was used to allocate some population into CD6, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that race predominated and that other redistricting principles were subordinated to race.”
They describe the 26th district as “the Denton County-based district that has the so-called ‘lightning bolt’ extension into Tarrant County” which covers largely Hispanic neighborhoods. That area of the city is completely surrounded by Congressional District 12, represented by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, the ruling states.
Except for the predominantly African-American Congressional District 30, represented by Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, “minorities have been consistently unable to elect candidates of their choice to the United States House in the DFW districts,” the ruling states. “The Court also heard evidence that Anglo Representatives elected in those districts have been unresponsive to their needs. The record sufficiently demonstrates dilutive effect. Accordingly, the Court finds that the districts in DFW are invalid.”
Matt Angle, founder and director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee, said the 33rd District may have fixed some of the “blatant violations” under the 2011 map.
“However, arguments will be made to repair remaining cracked Hispanic and African American neighborhoods in Dallas and Tarrant counties,” he said. “The ruling is a major victory for minority citizens and their advocates before the court.”
Hispanics fueled Texas’ dramatic growth in the 2010 census, the year before the maps were drawn, accounting for two out of every three new residents in the state. The findings of racially motivated mapmaking satisfied Democrats and minority rights groups, who are now pushing a separate federal court in Texas to determine that the voter ID law was also crafted with discriminatory intent.
Texas was forced ahead of the November election to weaken its voter ID law, which allows concealed handgun licenses but not college student IDs, after a federal appeals court found that the requirements particularly hampered minorities and the poor.
The Obama administration had brought the muscle of the U.S. Justice Department into Texas to help challenge both the maps and voter ID law. But barely a month after Trump took office, the federal government reversed course and announced it would no longer argue that Texas purposefully discriminated against minorities with its voter ID law.
It was not yet clear whether the Trump administration will also drop opposition to Texas’ maps. But Smith, in his dissent, had strong words for Obama administration attorneys after they joined the case.
“It was obvious, from the start, that the DoJ attorneys viewed state officials and the legislative majority and their staffs as a bunch of backwoods hayseed bigots who bemoan the abolition of the poll tax and pine for the days of literacy tests and lynchings,” Smith wrote. “And the DoJ lawyers saw themselves as an expeditionary landing party arriving here, just in time, to rescue the state from oppression, obviously presuming that plaintiffs’ counsel were not up to the task.”
The stakes in finding discriminatory intent are higher because it provides a window for opponents to argue that Texas should be forced to resume having changes to voting laws “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department or a federal court. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling did away with preclearance by striking down a key provision in the federal Voting Rights Act.
Staff writers Anna M. Tinsley and Steve Kaskovich contributed to this report, which includes material from The Texas Tribune and The Associated Press.