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U.S. Supreme Court to hear Texas redistricting arguments

The nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Gregg Abbott, Governor of Texas, et.al., Applicants v. Shannon Perez, et. al. on April 24. The case involves the constitutionality of U.S. District 27 and state District 25 in Nueces County.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments April 24 in a Texas redistricting case that could lead to a redrawing of the boundaries of one state representative district and one congressional district in Nueces County. Gregg Abbott, Governor of Texas, et.al., Applicants v. Shannon Perez, et. al. is the culmination of seven years of partisan battles over Texas District 32, currently represented by Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), and U.S. District 27, recently vacated by Republican Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi. The case also includes U.S. District 35, represented by Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin).

The highest court in the land agreed Jan. 12 to hear appeals by elected Texas state officials on a lower court’s findings that the three districts violate the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio ruled last year that these and several other districts in the state were drawn with the “intention of discriminating against minorities,” a violation of Section 2 of the 1965 act.

Both U.S. District 27 and state District 32 are considered safe Republican districts, while U.S. District 35 was drawn to give the advantage to Hispanic candidates. The idea with Doggett’s district, claim proponents of the Texas Legislature’s 2010 redistricting, is that Hispanic voters would most likely cast their ballots for one of their own, resulting in Doggett’s defeat.

If that was the hope, it didn’t work: Doggett has been re-elected three times since the new district lines were put into effect for the 2012 general election. The new lines of District 27, meanwhile, kept that seat safe for Farenthold, who first won it in the 2010 mid-term-election backlash against President Barak Obama. A political newcomer at the time, he defeated long-term incumbent Solomon P. Ortiz, a Democrat.

If it’s possible to read Supreme Court tea leaves (which it really isn’t), these three district lines are probably safe, at least until the 2020 census provides new population figures and, therefore, a new round of partisan wrangling.

The legal back-and-forth over the years has included multiple organizations and dozens of lawyers, officials, and concerned citizens. Here’s a look at how it has played out since the initial lawsuits were filed in 2011.

CASE HISTORY

In 2011, Texas was granted four additional congressional seats — the most of any state in the nation — based on 2010 census numbers that showed substantial population growth in the state. Latinos and African-Americans accounted for 90 percent of that growth, a fact not reflected in newly drawn congressional and state districts by a Republication-led Texas House, claim opponents of the 2011 election maps.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits charge Republicans with intentionally diluting minority voting strength and failing to create majority-minority districts required by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. They not only want newly drawn districts, they also want Texas to once again be under federal scrutiny for any future election law changes as per Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act.

Under Section 3 rules, a state proven to intentionally discriminate against minority voters can be required to get permission from the U.S. government to enact new election laws. Texas was one of nine states that fell under federal scrutiny based on its history of prior discrimination. That changed in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Shelby County v. Holder that is unconstitutional to use prior bad acts to determine Section 5 status, putting the burden on judges to decide whether a state deserves oversight based on new rulings of discrimination.

The current redistricting battle in Texas could put the state back in a position of having to seek approval from the U.S. attorney general for permission to pass new election laws. The first series of lawsuits taking the state down that path came from individuals and organizations representing African-Americans and Hispanics alleging that the Texas Legislature’s redistricting plans violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Replacement maps adopted in 2013 were added to the lawsuits as they did not significantly change any lines on the map.

Plaintiffs won an important victory in the ongoing war over state district lines in March 2010 when the three-judge panel issued a 2-1 ruling that four districts represented unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. The court also cleared a Houston district but pointed out discrimination in a Dallas district that was singled out in the lawsuit.

In April, the panel released another ruling stating that several districts in the 2011 House plan violated the constitution and the Voting Rights Act. No ruling was made on the proposal to put Texas under Section 3 requirements. The issue went to trial later that month.

After the April trial, the court ruled in August 2017 that the 2013 House plan was intentionally discriminatory, listing U.S. Districts 27 and 35 as unconstitutional. The court gave the state three days to decide whether it would hold a special session on further redistricting to correct the problem. If no special session was held, the court said, a remedial hearing would be Sept. 5.

On Aug. 18, rather than announcing a special session, the state filed an appeal of the ruling and asked for a stay in the remedial proceedings. That request was denied by the lower court later the same day. It followed that with a finding on Aug. 24 that the Texas House violated the constitution and Voting Rights Act in its 2011 map as well. The state was given until Aug. 29 to decide on a special session to redraw the map or face a remedial hearing Sept. 6.

That’s when Gov. Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for relief. Paxton filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, asking for a stay of the lower court’s ruling. Justice Samual Alito, who handles emergency appeals to the Supreme Court for the U.S. region that includes Texas, placed a temporary stay on remedial proceedings pending further action from the Supreme Court. Plaintiffs, which include Shannon Perez, a Hispanic voter from Bexar County, were directed to file a response for the request for a stay by Sept. 5. Remedial proceedings were also halted by Alito. That was Aug. 31.

The Supreme Court granted the stays Sept. 12. It also halted redrawing any maps pending appeal.

Over the fall and winter, both the plaintiffs and appellants filed motions to to dismiss or affirm the different cases. The court consolidated the Texas cases and allotted an hour for oral arguments Jan. 12, changing the docket number to 17-586. The nine justices split 5-4 on the decision with the more conservative members of the court overruling objections by the more progressive justices. Declining to the hear the case would have allowed the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, meaning the districts would have to be redrawn before the next election.

On Feb. 23, the court set April 24 as the date to hear oral arguments on the state of Texas’s appeals of the lower court’s rulings that congressional and state House elections maps in 2011 and 2013 violate the Voting Rights Act.

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