Texas lawmakers intentionally diluted votes of minority voters in drawing the state’s House districts, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.
In a long-awaited ruling, the San Antonio-based judges found that lawmakers in 2011 either violated the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting minority voters in a litany of House districts across Texas. Those districts encompass areas including El Paso, Bexar, Nueces, Harris, Dallas and Bell counties.
In some instances, the judges ruled, map-drawers’ use of race to configure some districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act instead “turned the VRA on its head.”
“Instead of using race to provide equal electoral opportunity, they intentionally used it to undermine Latino voting opportunity,” U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez wrote.
The 2-1 ruling came one month after the same court found intentional discrimination in the drawing of three Texas congressional districts. Like that ruling, however, the judges did not offer a remedy for the violations — leaving open the question of how the ruling will affect House races in 2018.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called the majority’s findings “fatally infected, from start to finish, with the misunderstanding that race, rather than partisan advantage” was behind the state maps.
“Despite its heartfelt efforts, this panel majority has badly overreached in finding that Texas used race, instead of partisan advantage, as the predominant factor in the 2011 redistricting,” Smith wrote, seemingly welcoming an appeal of the ruling by ending his dissent with a final quip: “Stay tuned.”
Thursday’s ruling hit in the final stretch of the 2017 legislative session, scheduled to wrap up at the end of May. But because the court did not immediately order that a new map be drawn, it is unclear whether lawmakers will be forced to take action before they leave Austin. And it follows a March ruling that found lawmakers intentionally discriminated in drawing three of the state’s 36 congressional districts.
The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has proved reluctant to act on that ruling. The House Committee on Redistricting, for instance, has not met since 2013 — despite calls from Democrats on the panel to discuss the March ruling and hold hearings on seven redistricting-related bills that have been referred to the committee.
The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, has refused to say whether she will call a hearing. “We’re just monitoring” the court proceedings, Burkett told The Texas Tribune this month, noting the lack of direction from the court.
House Speaker Joe Straus’ office — which oversaw the 2011 map-drawing — did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Meanwhile, the Democrats who challenged the statehouse map in court celebrated Thursday’s ruling as a vindication for communities of color in the state.
“This is yet another example of political discrimination by the State of Texas against minority voters,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said in a statement. “Thousands of minority voters are being denied their right to an equal opportunity to choose their elected representatives, just to preserve the party in power.”
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