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Here's a look at where things stand in Texas redistricting court battle

With the clock ticking toward the 2018 elections, here's a status update on Texas' long-winding redistricting court battle.

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After years of legal wrangling, Texas and its court challengers — groups representing voters of color — were finally set to hash out new congressional and state House maps after judges ruled the current maps discriminated against minority voters.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention last week added a new wrinkle to one of the most complicated redistricting cases moving through the courts. With the clock ticking toward the 2018 elections, it's now unclear whether Texas voters will be electing their representatives using new maps.

Here's where things stand.

How this all started

Following the 2010 census, which showed massive growth in the state's population, Texas lawmakers in 2011 redrew political maps to account for population changes. But those maps were promptly challenged by Texas voters, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the NAACP and other minority rights groups that alleged the maps violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. 

Since then, those claims have been amended to also include an interim map crafted by a court amid an election scramble and later ratified by the Texas Legislature in 2013. That's the map the state has been using to run the last few rounds of elections while a San Antonio-based federal panel considered the validity of the maps.

What did the San Antonio-based federal panel rule?

In two highly anticipated decisions, a federal three-judge panel in San Antonio ruled last month that the state’s congressional and state House maps needed to be redrawn to address voting rights violations. Specifically, the court found that the districts drawn by Texas lawmakers were tainted by discrimination against voters of color.

The congressional districts in question are CD-27 in Nueces County, where Hispanic voters were “intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,” and CD-35 in Central Texas, which was deemed illegally drawn because lawmakers used race as the predominant factor in deciding its boundaries.

On the state House side, the court flagged nine districts in four counties — Dallas, Nueces, Bell and Tarrant — in which lawmakers diluted the strength of voters of color. In some instances, the court pointed out, they rejiggered lines to “to ensure Anglo control” of legislative districts.

Adjusting boundaries in those districts could lead to a wider reconfiguration of the map because neighboring districts could also be affected.

If you assumed state leaders weren’t happy, you are correct.

There was never any doubt that the party on the losing end of the panel’s ruling would look to the U.S. Supreme Court for relief. And with the 2018 elections looming, the Texas Attorney General’s Office quickly appealed in an effort to keep existing political boundaries intact.

In a pointed brief, state attorneys wrote that the lower court was “intent on having its own judicial maps govern” the elections and had “waited too long” to put the case — let alone possible new maps — before the Supreme Court for review in an orderly manner.

The state argued this would “inevitably” leave the Supreme Court to decide between allowing elections to proceed with the existing maps or under a new map that the high court — if it had time to review it at all — would only be able to review “on a remarkably truncated schedule that will still throw the Texas election deadlines into chaos for the second time this decade”

Local election administrators have indicated they need clarity on district boundaries by October to meet electoral guidelines. In its brief, the state contends that the lower court could very well impose a remedial map just before that October deadline.

What did the Supreme Court actually decide?

Not much for now. Supreme Court Justice Alito, who oversees the federal courts in this region, last week put the lower court rulings against the maps on hold until the minority rights groups file responses to the state’s appeal. That includes a request that the high court determine whether the 2018 elections should take place under the current maps.

It’s not an ideal scenario for the minority rights groups. Alito’s orders led to the cancellation of hearings previously scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, during which the parties would have started redrawing the two maps.

But the Supreme Court didn’t weigh in on whether the lower court’s ruling was valid or even whether it would put the ruling on hold indefinitely as it considered the panel's findings against the maps. Think of it as the high court first deciding whether efforts to redraw the map ahead of the 2018 election can move forward.

The minority rights groups are working on their responses, which are due this week, and they expect all nine justices of the court to make the call on what’s next.

So are we getting new maps?

It’ll depend on the Supreme Court and the various paths it could take in deciding the case.

The high court could require that the upcoming elections be held under the current maps and leave the redrawing for later. It could also order a new map ahead of the elections (though the state would almost certainly appeal that map).

Clear as mud, right? We’ll get more clarity once the court acts on the state’s appeal after hearing from both sides this week.

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

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