In the latest about-face on voting rights under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice no longer supports efforts to force Texas back under federal oversight of its electoral map drawing.
In legal filings this week, the Justice Department indicated it would side against the voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers who want a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio to require Texas to seek pre-approval of its legislative and congressional maps, given previous maps that the federal judges ruled discriminatory.
“The United States no longer believes that [federal supervision] is warranted in this case,” federal attorneys said in their filing to the court.
It's the latest twist in the high-stakes legal fight that could return Texas to the days when it couldn't make changes to its maps without the Justice Department or a federal court first ensuring that state lawmakers weren't infringing on the political clout of voters of color — a voting rights safeguard that was in place for decades until 2013. And it’s the most recent reversal by the Justice Department in the case.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department sided with those challenging the state's maps as discriminatory. But last year, Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler joined state attorneys in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas’ current congressional and state House maps, which were adopted in 2013, were legally sound.
In approving the state’s current maps, the high court in June wiped out a ruling by the San Antonio panel that found the maps were tainted with discrimination that was meant to thwart the voting power of Hispanic and black voters, oftentimes to keep white incumbents in office. But seemingly left untouched were previous findings of intentional discrimination at the hands of the state lawmakers who first redrew the state’s maps in 2011.
The state’s opponents are now pointing to some of those 2011 violations in asking the San Antonio panel to consider returning Texas to federal guardianship of its maps.
“In a jurisdiction like Texas, which has consistently engaged in intentional discrimination since its inception, and which year after year attempts to sharpen and hone its ability to violate the law in more covert and artful ways, the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the laws requires the imposition” of federal supervision, the opponents said in a November filing.
Like several other states with histories of discriminating against voters of color, Texas for decades was required to obtain federal approval of any changes to its elections, including its periodic adjustments to political boundaries to account for population growth. When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013, it freed Texas from that supervision.
But the high court left open the possibility that future, intentional discrimination could mean a return to federal oversight.
The 2011 findings of intentional discrimination coupled with “the persistent pattern of discriminatory governmental action in Texas directed at minority voters for generations” should be enough, the plaintiffs argued.
The maps lawmakers first came up with in 2011 never went into effect amid legal wrangling that eventually led to the maps the state currently uses for its elections. But the San Antonio panel still found evidence of discriminatory mapmaking, ruling that “mapdrawers acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength” by intentionally “packing” and “cracking” voters into certain districts based on race.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department sided with the plaintiffs in arguing the original 2011 maps were discriminatory.
It's unclear whether the federal government will be allowed to formally flip its position on federal oversight for Texas. Some of the state's opponents on Wednesday asked the court to block the Justice Department from siding with the state, arguing the federal government missed a filing deadline.
The state's filing in opposition to a return to federal supervision is expected at the end of the month.
The Justice Department's new positioning in the redistricting case is in line with previous reversals in the years-long legal fight over the state's voter identification law. In that lawsuit, the department asked a federal appeals court to allow Texas to enforce a voter ID law that a lower court found discriminatory. Former President Obama’s Justice Department originally teamed up with civil rights groups against Texas in that legal battle over concerns that the law discriminated against voters of color and elderly and poor Texans.