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U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocks ruling against Texas congressional map

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that invalidated two of Texas' 36 congressional districts.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put on hold a lower court ruling that invalidated two of Texas' 36 congressional districts.

In an order signed by Justice Samuel Alito, the high court indicated it wanted to hear from the minority groups suing the state before the state's appeal of that ruling moves forward. The high court ordered the state's legal foes to file a response by Sept. 5 to the state's efforts to keep congressional district boundaries intact for the 2018 elections.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had asked the Supreme Court to block a three-judge panel's unanimous finding that Congressional Districts 27 and 35 violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. State leaders have said they have no immediate plans to call lawmakers back to Austin to redraw the congressional map. Instead, they looked to the high court to protect Texas from needing a new map ahead of the 2018 elections.

“Stall and delay is the favorite tactic used by Attorney General Paxton," said state Rep. Mary González, vice chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, a plaintiff in the case. "We feel confident that once the Supreme Court has the opportunity to hear both sides that they will move forward to provide justice to all Texas voters.”

The AG's office, meanwhile, said they were "encouraged" by Alito's decision. 

“We remain hopeful that the entire Court will allow Texas to continue to use the maps that were in place the last three election cycles," Marc Rylander, the AG's director of communications, said in a statement.

At issue in the two districts flagged by the San Antonio-based court is whether Hispanic voters in CD-27, represented by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, were "intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice” and whether CD-35 — a Central Texas district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — is "an impermissible racial gerrymander" that was illegally drawn by lawmakers who used race as the predominant factor in drawing it.

Addressing those faults in the embattled map, which Texas used for the past three election cycles, would affect congressional races statewide because boundary changes in the two flagged districts would also reshape neighboring districts.

Texas and the minority rights groups suing the state were scheduled to return to court in San Antonio on Sept. 5 to fight over a new map. On Monday, the San Antonio three-judge panel advised that the Supreme Court's order did not prohibit the state and minority groups from "voluntarily exchanging" proposed fixes. A clerk indicated the court would confirm on Tuesday whether the hearing would move forward.

Separately, Texas is defending its state House map, which the same San Antonio panel partially invalidated last week because of intentional discrimination behind the crafting of several legislative districts.

The court had indicated that lawmakers should be prepared to also meet on Sept. 6 to consider changes to the state House map. But Paxton also plans to appeal that ruling, which said nine districts must be redrawn.

Legal observers suggested not reading too much into the order beyond the court’s desire to give the state’s argument a full review.

An open question is whether the increasingly complicated legal battle will delay the March 2018 primary elections.

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