Redistricting Fights Move From Capitol to Courthouse

In a sort of legislative miracle, Texas lawmakers actually finished their redistricting work this year, drawing new political maps for Congress, the Texas House and Senate, and for the State Board of Education. But the fight is just starting, and could last beyond next year’s elections.

Nobody, including a fair number of lawmakers, thought the legislative part would be that easy. It helped to have a Republican supermajority. Still, the five-member state board that draws maps when lawmakers fail — the lieutenant governor, the speaker, the attorney general, the comptroller and the land commissioner — was all ready to go. But the Legislature left them nothing to do.

The maps are now in the hands of the courts. More than a dozen redistricting cases have been filed around the state, in courts in Sherman, Austin, McAllen and San Antonio. The various judges are trying to figure out how many can be consolidated into a single case, what will be left out, who will preside, and where the trial will take place.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has named a three-judge redistricting panel for the cases filed in San Antonio, with a judge from that appeals court, Jerry Smith of Houston, and two district judges, Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia, both of San Antonio. It’s not clear that those judges will get all of the redistricting cases, but that’s the only panel that’s been set up, and that’s where the greatest number of cases have been filed.

The clock is ticking. The March primary elections are eight months away. Candidates are already declaring and, under a new state law, have to file for office by early December to get on the ballot for the 2012 elections. Sometime between now and then, the courts have to pull the cases together, hear them, decide them and make map adjustments if needed.

 

Meanwhile, under the federal Voting Rights Act, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has to seek pre-approval of the maps from the U.S. Department of Justice or from the federal appeals courts in Washington. Or he could do what a couple of other states have done and ask both at the same time.

It’s a four-month feast of litigation for redistricting lawyers, most likely followed by appeals that could stretch well past the 2012 elections.

For now, candidates want to know where they’re running, and preferably, want to know it before they’ve spent any money. If the lines are going to move between now and Election Day, earlier is better, at least from the candidates’ standpoint. They are lining up, filing for four new and open seats in the state’s congressional map, for eight open seats in the state’s House map, and for other seats. They have to move quickly for competitive reasons and so they can get their campaigns busy organizing and raising money. But there’s a risk.

The map lines could change again, in the court fights and even later. In previous rounds of redistricting, legislators have been elected from interim maps that changed again after the first elections. It’s confusing — voters don’t know why their incumbents keep changing and who to call if they need something, and candidates have to keep reacquainting themselves with new voters.

It can happen even when the maps are legal. Texas famously redrew its congressional maps after Republicans took control of the state House in 2002. Nothing prevents it. That time, it resulted from having a new party in power, not a new population census, but it opens the possibility that lawmakers can fiddle with the lines whenever they want to, and not just when new census numbers come out.

If they don’t like what the courts do, they could come back in 2013 and draw a new set of lines and start the whole thing all over again. It was easy enough the first time.

 

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