Supreme Court Rules on Texas Redistricting Cases

On January 20th, the United States Supreme Court ordered a federal court in Texas to reconsider the maps it had drawn for the state’s legislative districts. The Court unanimously held that the lower court may not have used “appropriate standards” in drawing the new maps. Instead, the lower court had “substituted its own concept of the collective public good for the Texas legislature’s determination of which policies serve the interests of the citizens of Texas.” The Court remanded the case to the district court to draw new maps, this time starting from the plan created by the state legislature last year. Please see this earlier coverage by the Rose Report for a more in-depth analysis on the background of the case.

The federal district court in San Antonio will now reconsider the case, using the maps drawn by the state legislature “as a starting point.” The court is judging challenges to the maps based in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. According to election law expert Richard Hasen of electionlawblog.org, “This is a big win for Texas, and will require the drawing of districts much more likely to favor Texas’s interim plan.” The new maps will likely favor Republicans over Democrats to a larger extent than those created by the lower court the first time around.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that the federal government review and approve the maps. The state legislature’s plans have not yet been approve and so an interim plan must be created. According to the Court, however, this does not mean that the state’s plans can be disregarded by a district court drawing an interim plan.” The preclearance review is being heard by the federal district court in Washington, D.C.

Under the state’s primary election calendar, Texas has a deadline of February 1st for the creation of its new maps for both legislative and congressional districts. Given this tight deadline, the Justices issued their ruling only eleven days after hearing oral arguments and ordered that it go into effect immediately.

In a separate opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should have allowed Texas to use its own maps without any changes for the 2012 elections. This is based on his belief that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. The Court’s opinion noted that the constitutionality of Section 5 of the VRA was not at issue in this case, but that its “intrusion on state sovereignty” brings up “serious constitutional questions.”

In Texas, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott argued that the Court’s ruling was good news for the state. He said, “The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders…As the Justices point out, courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the state. The Court made it clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to the elected leaders of this state.”

Democrats, on the other hand, argued that Abbott has misinterpreted the ruling. Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis noted, “On behalf of the thousands of voters for whom we are fighting, we are delighted that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that adjustments should be made where the San Antonio court has found the likelihood of Section 2 violations or a “reasonable probability” of Section 5 violations, which was exactly how the San Antonio panel of judges drew the current interim maps.”

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