SAN ANTONIO — Eight months ahead of the 2018 primaries, Texas and its legal foes on Monday will kick off a week-long trial that could shake up races across the state.

The state and minority rights groups have been squabbling for six years over new political district boundaries drawn following the 2010 census. As part of a long-winding legal battle, a panel of three federal judges this week will reconvene in a federal courthouse here to consider the validity of the state’s political maps and whether changes should quickly be made to the state’s House and Congressional boundaries ahead of the midterm elections. At issue is whether the current boundaries violate the voting rights of millions of Texans of color.

The showdown comes months after the panel of judges found fault with the state’s 2011 drafts of the political maps. In a pair of rulings this spring, the judges also found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in crafting them.

Those rulings did not require an immediate remedy because the state has been running elections since 2013 under court-drawn maps that were crafted amid an election scramble and later adopted by the Legislature.

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But the judges are now turning their attention to the existing boundaries.

How we got here

The redistricting fight dates back to 2011, after the Legislature drew the state’s House, Senate and Congressional maps using fresh U.S. census data. Minority rights groups immediately challenged the validity of those boundaries, arguing that lawmakers illegally diluted the political clout of Latino and black voters.

The case has twisted through the legal system for years, and parties have previously resolved a dispute over the state Senate map. But two rulings this spring brought folks here.

In March, the San Antonio panel ruled the 2011 Legislature knowingly discriminated in drawing a new map of congressional districts, and it flagged particular violations in specific districts, including CD-23, represented by Will Hurd, R-Helotes; CD-27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and CD-35, represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

Lawmakers “acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength” in some districts, a 2-1 majority ruled. This included “packing” and “cracking” minority populations in certain districts to reduce their influence across the larger electoral map.

In April, the same judges ruled that the state intentionally undercut minority vote strength statewide with the Texas House map and specifically in a litany of House districts across Texas, including portions of El Paso, Bexar, Nueces, Harris, Dallas and Bell counties.

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But the 2011 maps never actually took effect. That’s because the court, in response to a lawsuit from critics, drew temporary maps ahead of the 2012 elections. Texas lawmakers formally adopted those maps — the ones the state has used ever since — during a special session in 2013.

Now, following this spring’s rulings, lawyers are fighting over what’s to be done with the 2013 maps.

What the state wants

Texas wants the judges to throw out the legal challenge. While the state has admitted to practicing partisan gerrymandering — overtly favoring Republicans in drawing districts in 2011— it denies targeting voters by race.

So far, the federal judges in San Antonio have not bought that argument, according to past rulings. But Texas still has another argument: that it can’t be held liable for any alleged discrimination on the 2013 maps since courts drew them. 

Relying on the court's own judgment is “the best legal advice anyone can get,” Matthew Frederick, with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office, told the judges in April

What the state’s legal foes want

Minority rights groups argue the court-drawn map was meant to be temporary and should not insulate the state from discrimination that may have carried over from the 2011 maps.

Some district boundaries on the current maps, for instance, are identical to those flagged as discriminatory on the 2011 map. Consider the boundaries of two congressional districts: Farenthold’s 27th and Doggett’s 35th. Both are identical under both sets of maps.

The diverse group of plaintiffs sees discrimination in a variety of districts across the current maps and want them redrawn ahead of next year's election cycle.

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What this means for 2018

With the 2018 elections fast approaching, all eyes are on the calendar.

It’s unclear when the panel will rule after this week’s hearing wraps up. But local election administrators have said they need clarity on district boundaries by October so they have enough time to prepare for the March primaries, send out voter registration cards and meet other electoral deadlines.

If the court rules that the 2013 maps must be fixed ahead of the elections, it could set off a scramble to finalize a version of the state maps that are acceptable to the court without delaying the upcoming elections.

A final decision on the political boundaries for the upcoming election could also be held up if either of the parties challenge the San Antonio panel’s eventual ruling and kick the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If history is any indicator, the timing of that appeal to the high court could come with serious repercussions for candidates.

Remember Ted Cruz’s election to the U.S. Senate in 2012? Legal wrangling over the the state’s political map pushed that year’s primary elections and subsequent runoffs into the dog days of summer, when Cruz was able to pull out an upset win over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Representatives seeking re-election — and their potential challengers — will also be up against the clock as they wait for a resolution over district boundaries. Candidate filing opens in mid-November.

The court trial begins Monday morning. It is expected to conclude on Friday or Saturday. Check back for updates.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A barrage of court rulingsĀ has forced Texas leaders to confront whether they strayed too far in enacting voting laws found to have disproportionately burdened minorities. [link]

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