Wednesday's decision from a three-judge panel in federal court in San Antonio reads like a really good joke. There's the buildup, in which they repeatedly blast Texas' Republican-controlled legislature for its racially discriminatory 2011 redistricting, that gets you leaning in one direction. Then there's the punchline that nearly gives you whiplash: Despite the court's findings, Texas won't have to go back to being subject to federal pre-clearance for any changes to its election maps or voting rules.
“Upon examination, this Court found that the Texas Legislature intentionally discriminated in 2011 in numerous and significant ways," the panel from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas wrote. "The Court then found that the Legislature intentionally maintained the racially discriminatory aspects of the 2011 Texas House and Congressional plans when it enacted the interim plans in 2013, and that its true purpose in enacting the plans was not to comply with the VRA but to insulate itself from further liability for the discriminatory aspects of the plans, including potential bail-in relief.”
A coalition of voting and civil rights groups has fought the state in courts for about a decade, arguing that the legislature illegally "packed and cracked" Texas' minority voters. When a group of voters are packed, electoral lines are drawn so that they are concentrated into one district, limiting their chances of influencing the election of more than one representative. When a group of voters is cracked, they are drawn into several different districts, diluting their relative voting power.
Federal courts have repeatedly found Texas' 2011 state House map to be an illegal gerrymander, a fact that, on its own, could've sent the state back into pre-clearance scrutiny. A Supreme Court decision in June 2018 signing off on an amended map drawn by the legislature in 2013 saved the state's bacon.
“Although the Court’s findings of intentional racial discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment with regard to the 2011 plans are sufficient to trigger bail-in, and although the court has serious concerns about the state’s past conduct, the various requests for discretionary relief ... are hereby denied," the judges wrote.
Despite the judges' criticism, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton celebrated the decision.
“This court ruling is a win for our Constitution and the right of Texans to govern themselves,” Paxton said. “The plaintiffs’ requests for bail-in were based on plans that were adopted by the Legislature in 2011, never used in any state election, and repealed more than six years ago. We are thankful that today’s decision finally puts an end to this baseless challenge.”
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Texas Democrats said the ruling shows how important the 2020 election is for the future of the state.
“Republicans know that the only way they win elections is to rig elections by gerrymandering maps and making voting harder for certain people. It is disgusting," said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “Now more than ever, Texas Democrats must flip the state House in order to fight so that every Texan has fair and equal representation.
“Now more than ever, Democrats must win the White House and both chambers of Congress so that a new Voting Rights Act is enacted that puts an end to these discriminatory Republican tactics that silence the voice of Texans. Now more than ever, Texans must stand up and vote for change."