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Redistricting is Harder Than It Looked at First

Texas lawmakers set out to do a quick fix on the state's political maps. They soon found out there was nothing quick about it.

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The Texas Legislature’s redistricting mission was supposed to be easy-peasy: Zip in for a special session, ratify the court-drawn maps used as a stopgap in the 2012 elections, close the legislative books and go home.

The attorney general said the Legislature could cut away some of the tangled litigation that had the state defending its maps in separate federal courts in Washington and San Antonio. The special session would be over in seven to 10 days, lawmakers said.

Instead, it is like taking a shortcut through a swamp — the sort of well-intentioned romp that marks the beginning of so many classic horror movies. The legal and political monsters appeared right on cue, and what was supposed to be a quick march could become a hard slog.

Legislative leaders expanded the size of the committees considering the political maps, the better to include viewpoints from more of the state’s geographical and demographic groups.

When the San Antonio judges who drew the maps held a hearing last week to find out where things stood, they made it clear that their own interim maps would be subject to the same kind of review any other map might face. They drew them without public input and without intending them to be used more than once.

So now lawmakers are holding redistricting hearings in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi — in addition to Austin — giving the public a chance to talk about new maps. Some are starting to worry that the whole exercise could affect the timing of the 2014 elections. A couple of them have suggested holding even more hearings in more far-flung cities like Laredo and El Paso.

This is not the tidy little package promised by the state’s top lawyer.

State election officials want maps in hand by Sept. 1. Theirs is the invisible part of elections, where someone has to have sorted out, precinct by precinct, which races are on which ballots in which places. That takes time, even before the candidates officially sign up for races, and it is that work that made it necessary to delay primaries in 2012 once the courts were through with their work.

Now suppose you are an optimist, confident that the Legislature and the federal courts are efficient, reliable and fast at their work. Even in the best case, a three-month process would be fast.

The maps drawn by the San Antonio judges, who were hearing complaints brought by multiple plaintiffs challenging maps drawn by legislators in 2011, were put in place with an “interim” label. And the judges said those plans did not constitute a ruling of any kind in the Texas litigation. Their maps were intended only to make it possible to hold elections while the litigation was still under way. The judges also wondered out loud whether a new set of base-line maps would restart the legal process in a new court or whether they would remain in charge of the case.

Assume nothing, in other words.

One plaintiff — represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund — has said the interim maps would satisfy its legal claims, although it still sees room for improvement. Others — represented by a roomful of lawyers — still have objections to the maps used in 2012 for congressional and Texas House districts. One bright spot is that everyone involved told the court that the state Senate lines in the interim maps are fine. That particular map appears to be final.

Gov. Rick Perry called a 30-day special session on the last day of the 140-day regular session that just ended telling lawmakers he wanted them to work on redistricting. His proclamation said they were to come back to consider legislation that “ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the Federal District Court.”

Legislative lawyers don’t read that the way you might; they have told their bosses that lawmakers are free to amend those court-drawn maps as they see fit — as they might or might not after hearing from citizens and activists in public hearings in cities around the state.

New lines would forfeit any argument that the lines are the product of judicial hands and automatically constitutional, and would probably require hearings on the merits of the changes.

Here in the swamp, the monsters never stop.

[Editor's note: MALDEF's role in the case has been clarified; it is not a plaintiff itself, but represents one of the plaintiffs.]

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Politics 2014 elections Redistricting