Holiday redistricting stories, not unusual things if you've watched this for a while, always start with three wise persons in the guise of federal judges. It's super-sized this year, with six wise men, three in San Antonio and three in Washington.
The three in Washington are in the game because Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott thought the state would get a better ride from federal judges in the DC circuit than from staff attorneys in a Democratic administration's Department of Justice. But the DC panel, asked to pre-clear the Texas maps for legislative, congressional and State Board of Education seats — to certify that those maps didn't put Texas in reverse gear with regard to the rights of minority voters — ruled only on the SBOE map. They'll hold a trial on the others.
Nothing wrong with that except the timing. A new federal law required Texas to put more space between candidate filing and its primary elections, and more space between the primaries and the runoffs. That put candidate filings in November, and to have candidate filings in November, candidates have to have maps.
The judges in Washington didn't make the deadline. They decided Texas hadn't shown that the legislative maps make muster, and they'll hold a trial to find out. Next month. That's why the San Antonio court drew maps. Ordinarily, they would wait until someone in the Capitol — the DC judges or Justice — pre-clears the maps. They'd then decide whether the maps also took proper notice of changes in the state's minority populations. Pre-cleared maps are legal, but the state's maps never got that stamp of approval. The only legal maps, then, were the ones approved years ago by the Legislature and the courts. But those are out of whack because the population has changed and because a census was taken to prove it. Those maps are illegal because the districts aren't close to uniform sizes; some voters have disproportionately stronger or weaker votes. One person, one vote, and all of that.
So the San Antonio judges had only one way out of the box: Draw.
They drew new maps that, compared with the Legislature's versions, increase the number of minority opportunity districts where minority voters have the ability to choose the candidates of their choice. Since Texas minorities tend to favor Democrats over Republicans, they increased the numbers of Democratic seats along the way.
Republicans don't like the result and plan to ask higher courts — that's the Supremes, pretty quickly — to stay the San Antonio maps while the DC court catches up. And the nation's high court will have to decide whether the new maps are so problematic that it's worth messing with the deadlines and timing of the state's party primaries.
As it stood on Thanksgiving Eve: The San Antonio judges have ordered the state to use a Senate plan drawn by a unanimous panel and a House map drawn by a 2-1 majority. They've unanimously presented a congressional plan and asked for comments by Friday at noon and they'll follow with an interim map for the primaries. Abbott's office, meanwhile, is readying a request for a stay to try to make these maps go away.
Candidates are scrambling.