Lawmakers: Tackle Redistricting or Wait for Courts?

Greg Abbott is selling a redistricting nostrum, telling Texas legislators they could cut their legal risks by adopting new political maps right away.

It is a hard sell. Lawmakers are getting along so well they practically break out into song every day. Abbott, the state’s attorney general, is offering them one of the most reliably divisive issues in existence, saying they could get themselves — and him, too, by the way — out of a lot of gnarly legal fights by endorsing maps drawn by federal judges instead of defending their own. They’re balking.

Abbott’s job is to defend the state’s maps. So far, that has meant the maps drawn by lawmakers in 2011. Lawsuits ensued, alleging the state’s maps discriminated against fast-growing minority populations, and the judges hearing those complaints in federal court in San Antonio ordered temporary maps to be used while the lawsuits were under way.

A separate legal track was playing out in another federal court in Washington, where the state was defending its maps against Justice Department challenges. The Washington panel found major problems with the Texas maps, a decision that is being appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the Texas court is on hold, waiting to see what comes of that.

Add to that a case out of Alabama challenging part of the Voting Rights Act that requires places with historic patterns of discrimination in election laws — Texas is one of those places — to get federal permission before they can enact changes in voting laws or political maps. The lawyers made their arguments earlier this year, and lawyers all over the country are waiting for that ruling.

Back to Abbott, who has been trying to convince state leaders — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus in particular — that they should abandon the legislative and Congressional maps they drew two years ago, and instead adopt the temporary replacements drawn by the courts and used in the 2012 elections.

The simplest variation would be to ask the Texas House and Senate to endorse those court-ordered versions, to adopt them as their own. The logic is that the courts would be unlikely to find their own maps unconstitutional.

The selling point to Democrats is that an adverse ruling in the Shelby County, Ala., case would undermine key protections for minority voters that could result in Democrats losing seats in federal and state legislative bodies — that they had better act now to avoid that risk.

The selling point to Republicans is that current court battles can only benefit the Democrats, because so many of the rulings to date have gone against the state maps drawn by a Republican Legislature. Better to act now, to avoid the risk.

It might be possible to get state senators to go along with Abbott, but the House is less likely to cooperate. Neither side of the Legislature, truth be told, is willing to spill much political blood fighting over congressional maps.

Straus sent word this session that the House would be willing to look at whatever the Senate can approve. That reduces the risk on his side of the Capitol and also probably kills the idea.

The House generally will not vote on a Senate plan unless senators have already approved it, and vice versa. Straus offered senators a chance to vote on House plans first, something akin to courteously offering a fellow pirate first dibs on walking the plank.

Lawmakers can always come back and draw new maps again, after the courts are through. They have been advised to leave their school finance system alone while that works its way through the courts, to avoid trying to second-guess the judges. So why second-guess the courts on redistricting?

Abbott has more at risk.

The political incentives are meager: It would be hard to come out of this a hero. Just try to find a well-balanced Texas voter who is keeping score on redistricting machinations. Most voters are looking at other things.

The risk? If, a year from now, one party or the other has lost ground because of a lousy showing in court, its advocates — not the lawmakers themselves — would take the heat.

Nobody, especially the attorney general, wants to be a goat.

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