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Agenda Texas: Redistricting Court Battle

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: The special session on redistricting is under way, but unlike previous redistricting efforts in Texas, most of the action this time may not take place at the Capitol.

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It was a busy final day in the Texas Legislature. The House adjourned at a couple of minutes past 5 on Monday, and the Senate followed about 10 minutes later.

If it had only lasted. About 10 minutes after that, it was announced that Gov. Rick Perry had ordered a special session. So at about 6:15, they were gaveled back in.

Now we’re off and running on a 30-day session, focused for the moment only on codifying court-drawn election maps for the Texas House, Senate and U.S. House. But before we get to that, here's a brief redistricting history:

In 2011 the Legislature passed new Texas House, Senate and congressional maps. Because Texas is one of a handful of states that must get pre-clearance for any changes to election maps, a federal court in Washington, D.C., began looking over what lawmakers had done. Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey explained that the maps came under review from a second court.

“While that pre-clearance litigation was going, a bunch of parties went to another federal court here in Texas, in San Antonio, and said these maps are illegal, throw them out,” Ramsey said.

And the court did just that, replacing the legislative maps with interim maps to be used in the 2012 elections. But now the Legislature wants to make those maps permanent. Republicans are doing this for a couple of reasons. First, to bring some certainty to future elections. In 2012, the court challenges pushed the state’s March primary back to May and had candidates confused as to which district they needed to run in. But second, “to greatly oversimplify this, one side says if the court drew the maps and you ratify the court’s maps, those are almost by definition legal maps,” Ramsey said.

Democrats and minority advocates quickly counter that even the judges didn’t want these maps to become permanent.  “The courts said these maps are temporary in nature and do not address the claims brought forth by the litigants," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. "So the courts never imagined that these maps would be adopted permanently.”

The San Antonio court has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning to talk about which maps will be used in the 2014 election. While Republicans hope offering to use the interim maps will settle election problems in 2014, Democrats like state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie wish lawmakers would slow down and let the court decide.

“There’s a hearing tomorrow in the district San Antonio court," Turner said. "I think it would have been prudent to have that hearing, get some direction from the court and then for the governor to react accordingly. But clearly they want to jump out there first."

Lawmakers will hold committee hearings Thursday, Friday and Saturday on the court-drawn maps with a goal of voting on the maps next week, and maybe ending the legislative session in 12 days. Ramsey says that while redistricting is often considered hyper-local — literally dissecting neighborhoods for political gain — changes in Texas could affect national politics.

“Texas has 36 members in Congress," Ramsey said. "If you change the composition of the Texas maps and you change the composition of the Texas congressional delegation, then you change the composition of Congress.”

One final piece to this extremely complicated puzzle: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next few weeks on whether or not Texas or any state will need to get pre-clearance on election maps in the future. Even if Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act went away, Democrats say they’ll still have grounds for legal action.

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