This week is the beginning of the end for one of Texas' longstanding political fights. Over the course of at least five days in a San Antonio courthouse, a three-judge federal panel will hear arguments over whether Texas illegally discriminated against the state's minority population when it drew its current congressional and state House maps.
The stakes are high. If the state succeeds in persuading the judges to uphold its map, Texas' electoral boundaries will continue to reinforce the state's Republican hegemony. If the plaintiffs win, forcing the state to redraw its maps ahead of the 2018 election, Democrats would have a chance to take advantage of state demographics that continue to tilt in their favor.
As arguments continue from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for the rest of the week, including Saturday, if necessary. Here's what you need to know to follow along.
What the plaintiffs say the state did: The plaintiffs in the case, led by the Texas House's Mexican American Legislative Caucus, argue that the state "packed and cracked" Texas' nonwhite voters when it drew its latest voting maps in 2011. Minority voters, the plaintiffs claim, were either shoved into districts with high concentrations of black or Latino voters (packed) or drawn into districts in which their political power would be diluted (cracked).
The MALC and other groups immediately challenged those maps, and a federal court redrew them before the 2012 election. The Texas Legislature approved those redrawn maps on a permanent basis in 2013, but the plaintiffs maintain that the newer maps haven't fixed the problem. In fact, MALC Chairman Rafael Anchia said earlier this year that the state has violated the constitution almost every time it's drawn electoral maps since the '70s.
"In nearly every instance since the 1970s Supreme Court decision in White v. Regester, the Texas Legislature has drawn electoral maps in violation of the constitutional protections against discrimination and the Voting Rights Act," Anchia said.
Where the case stands: Earlier this year, the same three-judge panel hearing the case this week issued its final decision on the 2011 maps. Those maps, according to the panel, were drawn by "mapdrawers [who] acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength or otherwise violated the Fourteenth Amendment,” according to U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez.
The state contends that the maps approved in 2013 fix the problem and wants the court to certify the current maps going forward. The plaintiffs want the judges to throw out the maps and force the state to draw new ones before next year's primary and general elections.
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The state's argument: In their arguments in support of the current map, Texas Republicans have admitted that they drew the 2011 maps in order to gain a partisan advantage but claim that they did so without targeting voters by race. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that partisan redistricting is not necessarily unconstitutional, but a current case in front of the court involving North Carolina redistricting could muddy the waters.
Timing: While it took the district court more than five years to reach a final decision on the 2011 maps, the court is not expected to take anywhere near as long to issue its ruling following this week's arguments. That's important. Attorneys for the state have argued that the court must rule by September if it wants the state to redraw its maps in time for the 2018 midterms.
The potential outcomes: If the state wins, nothing happens. If the plaintiffs are victorious, there will be a mad dash to redraw the maps in time for the 2018 election. While the most controversial congressional districts are located outside of North Texas — in the Rio Grande Valley and Central Texas — several DFW House districts could be changed by the ruling. The plaintiffs allege that Texas Republicans unconstitutionally packed House Districts 103 and 104 in western Dallas County with Latino voters in order to protect white incumbent Rodney Anderson in House District 105.
Perhaps most important, an adverse ruling could threaten the state with a return to consent status under the Voting Rights Act, which would require Texas to seek federal approval for any changes it might hope to make to its election laws.