Redistricting: Phone a Friend

At one point in the most recent redistricting hearings in San Antonio, the judges asked the lawyers in the room if anyone would object if they called their counterparts on a Washington, D.C. court for a quick conversation about the progress of the case.

Nobody objected, and when the judges were back, they didn't say what, if anything, they'd found out.

This week, they put out a public signal, and the judges in Washington did the judges in San Antonio a favor, telling them via a procedural order that the D.C. panel won't be ruling on its part of the Texas redistricting case for a month.

That looked to some like a delay. But it's actually the answer to a question asked by the San Antonio judges during a hearing last week: How fast is Washington moving?

Now that they know the answer, the San Antonio judges know they can draw redistricting maps without looking over their shoulder.

The three judges in San Antonio had several things to worry about when they met a week ago. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out their legislative and congressional redistricting maps, saying they should have used the Legislature's maps as a starting point. The Supremes also gave them a prescription for how to proceed if the Legislature's maps haven't received preclearance from that Washington court.

The Washington panel of three federal judges was holding hearings on preclearance, though. The Texas judges ran a risk if they started drawing again. If the Washington ruling was imminent, the Texas judges had reason to wait. They could take the Washington ruling, pull it into their findings and draw a map based on the mix. If there were no election deadlines looming, that would be the normal course of things.

If they waited and the Washington court was slow to rule, they'd be unnecessarily putting off the elections.

Lastly, if they decided to draw maps and then got a Washington ruling that conflicted with their work, they'd have another mess on their hands.

So this latest order from Washington clarifies things. A ruling won't come quickly. It's safe for the Texas judges to make their guesses (using the Supreme Court's instructions) about what the Washington court will do and to go ahead and draw maps.