The U.S. Supreme Court threw out court-drawn Texas redistricting maps on Friday morning, saying a panel of federal judges should have used the Legislature's maps as their starting point.
That's a victory for the state, which argued for the Legislature's maps. But it still leaves Texas without maps for the primary elections this spring, and probably ensures that those elections will be held later than April 3, the currently scheduled date.
Both maps would result in strong Republican majorities in the Texas House, Senate and congressional delegations. But the Legislature's maps were more strongly Republican, adding a handful of Republican seats in the Legislature, and one to three more in the congressional delegation.
"As the Justices point out, courts are ill suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the State," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "The Court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state and it's clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles."
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, set aside the court's map. Another federal panel is holding hearings now on the legality of the Legislature's maps under the federal Voting Rights Act. That case will go on, and that court's decision, along with proceedings that follow in federal court in Texas, will decide the final maps, primary dates and so on.
The San Antonio panel didn't use the Legislature's maps because those hadn't been precleared, as required by the Voting Rights Act. Even so, the Supreme Court ruled, they should have used those maps as their starting point:
Section 5 prevents a state plan from being implemented if it has not been precleared. But that does not mean that the plan is of no account or that the policy judgments it reflects can be disregarded by a district court drawing an interim plan. On the contrary, the state plan serves as a starting point for the district court. It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appropriately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court’s own preferences.
Local election administrators around the state have said they won't be able to conduct April 3 primaries unless they have maps by the end of this month. The Washington court's final arguments in the current case are set for Feb. 3, with the San Antonio proceedings to follow.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said the Legislature's maps shouldn't have been held up by the Washington preclearance at all; he wrote that that provision of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.