Legal Battles

Texas Legal Fight Over Redistricting Isn't Over

Texas is going to be fighting over voting rights forever, it seems.
Texas is going to be fighting over voting rights forever, it seems. Shutterstock
It turns out the nearly decade-long fight over Texas' legislative districts didn't actually end with the Supreme Court's ruling against the plaintiffs in June. Late Friday afternoon, the coalition of voting rights groups that have fought the state for fairer legislative districts since the last round of redistricting in 2010 filed a pair of new briefs with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. They seek to have the state forced back into federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

States subject to the VRA's preclearance provision must seek and receive federal approval for any changes they make to any law that applies to voting. Texas has been free from the requirement since 2013, when the Supreme Court cleared the list of states subject to preclearance, but could be placed back on the naughty list if federal courts determine that the state is intentionally discriminatory in its voting laws.

The groups argue that returning Texas to preclearance status for at least the next five years is the only thing that will stop state legislators from drawing unconstitutional district boundaries during the state's next round of redistricting following the 2020 elections.

"The Supreme Court held that the discriminatory intent of the 2011 legislature was erroneously imputed to the 2013 legislature, it left the findings of intentional discrimination as to the 2011 plans untouched." — Texas Redistricting Plaintiffs

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"[T]his vital, but time-limited remedy — this Court’s imposition of a preclearance requirement and retention of jurisdiction — is the most statutorily appropriate and equitable action that can ensure the State’s next redistricting plans do not discriminate against minority voters, particularly in light of this Court’s identification of the recent intentional discrimination employed by the State in redistricting and the persistent pattern of discriminatory governmental action in Texas directed at minority voters for generations," the plaintiffs write.

By a 5-4 vote in June, the Supreme Court tossed out a lower court ruling that found state lawmakers had "packed and cracked" minority voters, diluting their overall impact by drawing them heavily into some districts and out of others. The evidence was insufficient to find, as the lower court did, that the Legislature acted in bad faith when it put the districts together, Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion.

"Not only does the direct evidence suggest that the 2013 Legislature lacked discriminatory intent, but the circumstantial evidence points overwhelmingly to the same conclusion," Alito wrote.

Alito's opinion did not address whether the 2011 maps that the lower court initially ruled against were drawn with discriminatory intent, however, opening the door for Friday's challenge.

"The Supreme Court held that the discriminatory intent of the 2011 legislature was erroneously imputed to the 2013 legislature, it left the findings of intentional discrimination as to the 2011 plans untouched, ‘express[ing] no view on the correctness of this holding,’" the plaintiffs, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, write. "This Court’s findings of intentional discrimination in the 2011 Congressional and State House plans remain in place, and these findings — coupled with Texas’s persistent history of continued intentional discrimination — amply justify Plaintiffs’ request for relief under Section 3(c) [of the Voting Rights Act].”

Earlier this year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that the Supreme Court's rejection of the lower court's ruling protected the U.S. Constitution.

“I’m grateful that the U.S. Supreme Court restored the rule of law to the redistricting process. The court rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts and rejected the misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters,” Paxton said. “This is a huge win for the Constitution, Texas and the democratic process. Once again, Texans have the power to govern themselves.”

Throughout their fight against Texas' maps, the plaintiffs in the case have argued that, by drawing the maps to favor Republicans, the Texas Legislature illegally limited the power of the state's black and Latino populations.

"Today, the Supreme Court legitimized the Texas Legislature’s intentional discrimination against racial minorities in the 2011 round of redistricting," said Eddie Rodriguez, the policy chair for another of the plaintiffs, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "Despite multiple federal courts finding that Texas’ legislative districts were designed to disenfranchise minority voters, the conservative-leaning court chose to ignore the voter suppression suffered by millions of Texans over the past seven years. Numerous districts in the state House and congressional maps were drawn with discriminatory intent, yet the court only found that one district is a racial gerrymander."

The state has until Jan. 15 to respond. A hearing over Texas' potential return to preclearance has not been scheduled.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young