Federal Judges Will Draw New Political Maps for Texas

Next year's congressional and legislative elections in Texas will probably be conducted using political maps drawn by federal judges instead of those drawn by lawmakers.

A federal court on Tuesday declined the state's request for a fast ruling, saying the state "used an improper standard or methodology" to figure out which districts gave minority voters an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.

The ruling affects new redistricting maps for the 36 seats in Texas' congressional delegation, the 31 seats in the Texas Senate and the 150 seats in the Texas House.

That three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., will hold a trial on the maps to determine whether the state maintained the proper protections for minority voters. Because that will take some time, it probably means the March primaries will be conducted using maps drawn by a separate panel of three federal judges in San Antonio.

That Texas panel has already held hearings and is in the early stages of map-making. It already adjusted the filing deadlines, saying candidates can officially sign up between Nov. 28 and Dec. 15. The maps will have to be completed before that so the candidates will know what districts they're filing for.

The state of Texas asked the Washington court for a summary judgment declaring the maps legal under the federal Voting Rights Act, but the court turned down that request.

"Having carefully considered the entire record and the parties’ arguments, the Court finds and concludes that the State of Texas used an improper standard or methodology to determine which districts afford minority voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates of choice and that there are material issues of fact in dispute that prevent this Court from entering declaratory judgment that the three redistricting plans meet the requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act."

The court also pointed at the short timeline: "If any one of the plans is not pre-cleared by this court at this stage in the proceedings, the district court for the Western District of Texas must designate a substitute interim plan for the 2012 election cycle by the end of November."

Since the Washington court hasn't pre-cleared the state's plans, that's the signal to the Texas court to start drawing maps. "The plans adopted by the Legislature cannot be used at all in the 2012 election," said Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He said the Legislature's maps could still be approved later by the Washington court, but he considers that unlikely. "We are on track for the state of Texas to use a court-ordered plan."

The ruling throws the preparations for the 2012 elections into disarray. Local election officials got their cue from the Texas court last week, with the orders on candidate filing dates. But the candidates now don't know whether they've been running in the right territories or whether their political fortunes have changed along with the maps. And they won't know until they see those new maps out of the federal judges in San Antonio.

The Washington court said an opinion on its two-page ruling will be forthcoming.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Washington court for preclearance rather than going to the Department of Justice for an administrative ruling. Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott, had this statement: "The State of Texas passed redistricting plans that are fair and legal. The Texas House and Congressional maps actually increase the number of districts where minority voters can control the outcome of an election. The Court's decision today does not conclude otherwise, nor does reject Texas' maps — but instead simply requires a trial on the merits of the Texas redistricting map."
 
"While the Court did not adopt the legal standard proposed by Texas, the Court also did not approve DOJ's proposed subjective standard. Importantly, DOJ refused to provide an objective, workable standard for legislators to use when drawing the State's maps. Nevertheless, Texas still believes its maps will withstand scrutiny under the standard the Court chooses to apply at the time of trial."

New maps could put new candidates at risk and save some of the people threatened by the current maps. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, was a target of Republicans, who redid her district to make it difficult for her to win reelection. A new map might be better for her. "We don't know how the court will ultimately redraw the maps, but we know that the state's unfair map will not be in place for the 2012 election," she said in a press release. The district represented by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, was drawn to elect a Republican, forcing him to run in an adjacent district tailored more for a San Antonio Democrat than one from Austin.

Some candidates say they'll run no matter what. State Rep. Mark Shelton, a Fort Worth Republican challenging Davis, issued a press release saying he'll stay in the race even if the maps change.

Democrats generally pounced on the news.

"Today's ruling supports what leaders of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus have been saying for months — the Republican Leadership discriminated against minorities by seeking to grow their political influence in the halls of Congress and the Texas House while ignoring the demographic reality of those responsible for our state's population growth," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, chairman of MALC, in a statement.

"The real losers in this process are the voters," said Boyd Richie, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, in a press release. "Texas voters are seeing Republican discrimination and obstructionism at all levels but don’t know which Republicans they’ll have a chance to vote against this election cycle. This entire process could have been avoided if Republicans would have drawn maps based on demographics rather than their own shallow political ambitions."

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who heads the Democratic caucus in that body, added this: "The Senate Democrats made this same point time and again during the 82nd Texas Legislative Session.  The argument was ignored by those controlling the Capitol in an illegal effort to draw lines that created a retrogression in minority voting strength.  Those efforts were inappropriate, and we applaud the Court's decision. We look forward to a remedy that values the dignity of all Texas voters and complies with the law."

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.