If Gov. Greg Abbott calls a second special legislative session this summer, it won’t likely be for redistricting.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton revealed Friday that Abbott has no plans to ask lawmakers to redraw the state's congressional map — found by a federal court this week to discriminate against Latino and black voters — in a fresh round of legislative overtime.
Instead, Paxton is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and trying to keep the boundaries intact for the 2018 elections, according to his filings to a panel of three judges in San Antonio.
On Tuesday, the panel ruled that Congressional Districts 27 and 35 violate the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, setting up a redistricting scramble ahead of the 2018 elections.
The judges ruled that Hispanic voters in Congressional District 27, represented by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, were "intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice." Congressional District 35 — a Central Texas district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — was deemed "an impermissible racial gerrymander" because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in drawing it, the judges wrote.
The judges asked Texas whether lawmakers would return to Austin to try making a new map, or if Republican leadership would wait for court-drawn boundaries.
In his filings Friday, Paxton revealed a state plan to wriggle free of any consequences ahead of the 2018 elections. While asking the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's ruling that Texas intentionally discriminated against minority voters — the fourth such federal ruling this year — Paxton also requested an injunction that would protect Texas from needing a new map.
Barring a Supreme Court order, the San Antonio judges would approve new boundaries.
“Judges should get out of the business of drawing maps,” Paxton said in a statement. “We firmly believe that the maps Texas used in the last three election cycles are lawful, and we will aggressively defend the maps on all fronts.”
Redesigning the embattled map, which Texas used for the past three election cycles, could affect congressional races statewide, since boundary changes in the two flagged districts would also reshape their neighbors.
For now, Texas and its legal foes — groups representing minority communities — are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 5 to fight over a new map.
An open question is whether judges will approve new boundaries without delaying the 2018 primaries, an outcome that could shake up some races.
Remember Ted Cruz’s election to the U.S. Senate in 2012? Legal wrangling over the state’s map pushed that year’s primary elections and subsequent runoffs into the dog days of summer, when Cruz pulled out an upset win over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
In filings, Paxton argued Texas risks "irreparable injury" if the drawing of new maps disrupted its upcoming elections. Leaving the boundaries in place would not harm minority groups, he wrote.
Local elections administrators say they need clarity by October to meet deadlines for sending out voter registration cards, and December is the filing deadline for candidates.
Doggett on Friday called the state's appeal "desperate" and "highly questionable."
The Democrat said he plans to seek re-election in CD-35, where he was forced to compete in 2012 after the Legislature destroyed his old district in an attempt to oust him.
Trying to protect Republican majorities elsewhere on the map, lawmakers in 2011 labeled heavily Democratic CD-35 a “Hispanic opportunity district” and bumped up its share of voters to 50 percent. The three-judge panel called the effort a “facade” that minimized Hispanic voting power elsewhere in Texas.
"I believe that this Paxton-Abbott scheming only reaffirms the position that I have consistently taken," Doggett said in a statement Friday. "While the three-judge decision about some Republican redistricting wrongs is legally correct, nothing will be finally resolved until the Supreme Court has its say."
Texas is still waiting for the San Antonio judges to rule on its state House map.
Read related Tribune coverage:
If judges ultimately agree that Texas’ current political boundaries discriminate against minority voters, we could see new maps ahead of the 2018 elections. Judges could also impose a more consequential penalty. [Full story]
Federal judges have invalidated two of Texas’ 36 congressional districts, setting up a scramble to redraw them ahead of the 2018 elections. [Full story]
A barrage of court rulings has forced Texas leaders to confront whether they strayed too far in enacting voting laws found to have disproportionately burdened minorities. [Full story]