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Updated: Courts Moving Too Slow for April Primary Elections

Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed judge-drawn redistricting maps for Texas, a panel of federal judges set a Feb. 1 conference on what comes next — timing that could endanger the April 3 primaries.

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The state is asking federal judges in San Antonio to speed up their schedule and try to get new political maps in place by the end of the month, so that the political parties can proceed with primary elections on April 3. Here's the request from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott:

Defendants appreciate the Court’s speedy response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s vacatur of the interim redistricting plans for the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives.  Defendants are concerned, however, that the schedule ordered by this Court will not allow for entry of new interim redistricting plans in time for primary elections to be conducted on April 3, 2012, as previously ordered by this Court.   As this Court recognized after receiving input from both the state’s major political parties and state and local election officials, redistricting plans must be in place by February 1, 2012—at the very latest—in order for primary elections to be conducted on April 3, 2012.  Under today’s Order, however, a status conference will not be held until February 1, 2012, and it does not appear that the Court anticipates entering new interim redistricting plans by that date.  In order to preserve the unified April 3, 2012 primary election date agreed to by the State’s major political parties and ordered by this Court, Defendants respectfully request that this Court vacate its Order of January 20, 2012 and enter an expedited Scheduling Order that will allow for entry of new interim redistricting plans by January 30, 2012.  The State is prepared to assist the Court in any way possible to ensure its prior order to hold unified primary elections on April 3, 2012 can be fulfilled.   

Original Story:

Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed judge-drawn redistricting maps for Texas, a panel of federal judges told the lawyers in the case they'll hold a Feb. 1 conference on what comes next.

Some are hoping for a faster response and an earlier conference — one that might put legal maps in place in time to hold party primary elections on April 3.

A panel of three federal judges in San Antonio drew maps last year when it became clear that maps drawn by the Legislature would not have the required federal preclearance in time for the state's primary elections.

The state objected to the courts maps, which had fewer strongly Republican congressional and legislative districts than the Legislature's maps. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling this morning that the federal judges should have used the state's maps as the basis for their own redistricting.

The high court sent the case back to the Texas court, which will put together a new set of maps. Meanwhile, a separate federal panel in Washington, D.C., is deciding whether the Legislature's maps satisfy preclearance requirements in the federal Voting Rights Act.

The San Antonio court can redraw maps without the Washington court's ruling. But the Supreme Court said the Texas judges can't "pre-judge" what the Washington court might do. If they draw without waiting for Washington's ruling, they are supposed to decide whether it is "reasonably probable" which parts of the Legislature's map will or won't be approved by that Washington court.

Final arguments in the Washington case are set for Feb. 3. Election officials in Texas have said they need final maps in hand by the end of this month in order to prepare for an April 3 primary.

Drawing new maps right away could make April 3 primaries possible. Waiting until February could force the courts to push the primaries to a later date. That's already happened once; the state had been planning to hold its primaries on March 6 until the Supreme Court blocked use of the court-drawn maps.

The court was unanimous in its ruling, but Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, said he would allow the state to use the Legislature's maps without federal preclearance, which he believes is unconstitutional. No other justices joined him in that opinion.

Going ahead has the advantage of speed. If the judges could put a map in place by the end of the month (and if it withstood legal challenges), it would be possible to hold the primaries on April 3.

The Democratic and Republican political parties hold their state conventions June 7-9. The GOP in particular has been pushing for earlier primaries, and officials there said this afternoon they'll ask the court to hold a conference next week.

The Supreme Court didn't order any particular map, but said the lower court judges shouldn't substitute their own policy decisions for those of the elected Legislature. Reactions from all sides were cautious and pointed out how the judges could draw maps favorable to the commenters. A sampling:

• GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri: "I am hopeful that the Western District three-judge panel will issue new maps in time for us to maintain our current April 3rd primary. Until the panel issues new orders, we will not know how many legislative districts will likely be Republican and how many will be Democrat. Thus, any conclusion as to the overall result of today’s ruling by the Supreme Court will have to be withheld until that time. In the meantime, the RPT will continue to advocate for an election schedule that will allow an early April primary."

• State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus: "It is not a stretch to say that Texas’ enacted maps are riddled with legal deficiencies and we look forward to drawing a better interim map now that we know the San Antonio court can rely on the evidence presented at trial that Texas’ maps are discriminatory both in purpose and effect."

• Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst: "I'm pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court halted a clear case of judicial overreach by the San Antonio court and upheld the Texas Legislature's basic authority in the redistricting process. I am hopeful the San Antonio court will now move forward expeditiously to allow Texans to cast their ballots in the primary election on April 3rd."

• Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF: "Today's decision affirms the critical role of the federal Voting Rights Act in protecting minority voters. The Court rejected the request by Texas in this appeal to be allowed to implement its redistricting plans despite the fact that the plans have not been precleared under the Voting Rights Act. We believe the plans discriminate against Latino voters and are pleased that the Supreme Court refused to allow Texas to proceed with its discriminatory redistricting plans. We look forward to further proceedings in the federal court in Texas to again secure fair interim maps for all Texans."

• House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio: "The Court recognized the important and preeminent role of the Legislature, and by extension, the people we represent, to draw maps. With the Court's decision, we hope the process can move quickly so that Texans can vote in primaries on April 3rd."

• U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin: "Nothing in the Supreme Court order precludes a final congressional map like that already drawn by San Antonio Judges Garcia and Rodriguez.  Their map is the most fair approach for both San Antonio and Austin. But however the final lines are drawn, I will remain prepared to seek reelection wherever most of my constituents live. "

 • Matt Angle, head of the Democratic Lone Star Project: "Essentially, the Supreme Court took a middle-ground approach. The Court refused the request by Texas Republicans to use their un-precleared plans.  At the same time, it will not allow the use of the court-drawn interim plans either."

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