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Challenge to Texas Redistricting Opens in Federal Court

The state's new political maps are now in the hands of the federal government. An army of lawyers lined up before the start of federal hearings on Tuesday, lugging boxes of papers and briefcases bulging with the scribbled notes and other arguments they'll present over the next two weeks.

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SAN ANTONIO — The state's new political maps for legislative and congressional seats are now in the hands of the federal government.

An army of lawyers lined up before the 8 a.m. start of federal redistricting hearings on Tuesday, lugging boxes and boxes of papers and huge three-ring binders, large posters of the state with political maps on them, and briefcases bulging with the scribbled notes and other arguments they'll present over the next two weeks.

It really is a mob. Nearly three dozen attorneys — 10 of them from the state — filed into the courtroom. The audience included several elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Gene Green, D-Houston; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; and a couple of state legislators from San Antonio: Republican state Sen. Jeff Wentworth and Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer.

The federal courtroom was set up with data and maps in mind. Each team of lawyers had visual aids, in the form of posters and/or computer presentations that could be projected onto a screen set up for that purpose. Evidence from each group of lawyers — the state over here, and from each of the various defendants over there — was bandied around in enormous three-ring binders, duplicated for the judges, for the witnesses and for the lawyers on the other side.

Much of what the judges will hear over the next two weeks is mind-numbing data — political maps taken down to the level of neighborhood, and street, and home. One challenge to the maps, for instance, contends that lawmakers traded Hispanic precincts in the 23rd Congressional District for Hispanic precincts that are the same size but have smaller voter turnout. The idea, according to the plaintiffs, was to create a district that is Hispanic in everything but its voting patterns.

Several of the attorneys said the hearing now under way in San Antonio isn't really the central battle. The state filed its request for pre-clearance of the new maps with the federal courts in the District of Columbia. No trial date has been set for that, but many of the lawyers expect action in Washington before there's any ruling from the three judges in San Antonio. If they're correct, candidates and voters might not know the layout of the new districts until late in the year.

Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, began by telling the judges that it doesn't matter whether the state is run by Republicans or Democrats.

"Redistricting is done on the backs of minority voters," he said.

He objected to the differences in populations of the state House districts — they range from a low of 159,428 to a high of 176,054 — and said those deviations allow legislators to manipulate the numbers to get different results.

"Stacking, packing and cracking — the three traditional ways that racial gerrymandering is done," he said. (Stacking is when low-income minority populations are put in districts with higher-income Anglos whose voting turnout is stronger and overpowers the minority groups at the ballot box. Packing is a term for putting more minorities into a political district than is necessary for them to control the outcomes of elections. And cracking is when a community is split between two or more districts to dilute its influence on election outcomes.)

Nina Perales, director of litigation with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, and representing the Latino Task Force that includes that and other groups, appealed to the judges to do what the Legislature wouldn't. While 89 percent of the state's growth from 2000 to 2010 was minority growth, lawmakers didn't add any minority seats to the state's political maps. That's been true for at least 20 years, she said, telling the judges that only the courts and the U.S. Department of Justice have added Latino seats to the Texas maps. Rolando Rios, representing U.S. Rep. Cuellar, echoed that: "Texas has never given anything to Latinos that wasn't forced by the federal courts."

Austin and Travis County got a fair amount of attention in the opening arguments, with one lawyer referring to the "little umbilical cords" that radiate from "Mother Austin" on the congressional maps and another calling it an "exploding spiral nebula." They weren't necessarily worried about Austin so much as they were protesting on behalf of others caught in that artwork. One district reaches from the capital to Harris County. Another stretches from south of Travis County almost 190 miles north to Tarrant County. A third reaches all the way west to the far edges of the Hill Country in Real County. No. 4 goes into Bexar County, reaching from within blocks of the state Capitol to the courthouse in downtown San Antonio where the redistricting hearings are being conducted. The fifth stretches north to Waco and into near East Texas.

Allison Riggs of the NAACP argued that Anglo voters "consistently vote in a bloc against minority candidates" and that "Anglo elected officials not only ignore minority voters, but are actually hostile" in their map-making choices. Gary Bledsoe, who's with the NAACP but appeared in court as an attorney for the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and for U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and Johnson of Dallas, said the proof that the idea was to bolster Anglo votes is in the maps themselves. "You have to reach the conclusion," he said.

Renea Hicks, representing Travis County and the city of Austin and others, put some numbers to that, noting that the state's Anglo population grew more slowly, in raw numbers, during the last decade than that of either Hispanics or blacks. But Anglos are in the majority in 64 percent of the new congressional districts, he said, which is "out of proportion to the number of Anglos in the population."

Gerry Hebert, a former Justice Department redistricting lawyer now in private practice and representing a group of Dallas-Fort Worth plaintiffs that includes state Sen. Wendy Davis and state Rep. Marc Veasey, two Fort Worth Democrats, said he doesn't think the D.C. courts will approve the maps under the Voting Rights Act. "They gained four seats on the backs of blacks and Latinos, and [those groups] got no seats?" he asked.

After that barrage from the plaintiffs, Deputy Attorney General David Schenck, who is on the team that is defending the Legislature's work, told the court that the maps don't discriminate on the basis of race. "Those days are over," he said. Schenck said the state's population has no ethnic majority and that "our civic population is as diverse and as integrated as any in history." The data that will come before the judges, he said, will show different levels of political affiliation and that the maps were drawn with politics in mind, but not race. Efforts by some of the plaintiffs (and even by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, he said) to draw a Latino opportunity district in Dallas-Fort Worth proved impossible. "The Latino population is simply too spread out in Dallas, and also suffers from low citizenship rates," he said.

The state had stats of its own for the projectors, including one that said 24.7 percent of the citizen voting age population is Hispanic, and that eight of the state's 36 new congressional districts, or 22 percent, are Hispanic opportunity districts. Latinos aren't voting for Democrats in the percentages the Democrats would like, he said, adding that Anglos don't vote in a bloc "in any meaningful sense."

The state's position is that the trial will show "race-blind voting patterns" in Texas, Schenck said.

The judges said in filings prior to the hearings that they'll go every day — even Saturday if need be — and that they will end the trial a week from this Friday. That's Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day, a holiday celebrated throughout Texas.

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