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D.C. court rules Texas voting maps discriminatory

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

In a long-awaited decision, a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled Tuesday that the statewide maps for both Congressional and state legislative districts drawn up during the 2011 legislative session by Texas Republican lawmakers discriminated against minority voters.


That decision is seen as a huge victory for voting rights groups statewide and a validation of Travis County’s arguments that multi-ethnic coalitions should be protected. But it’s unclear exactly how much long-term impact the ruling will have on county representation in Congress.

And with only 69 days before the November elections, the effect of the ruling won’t likely be felt until new maps are installed for 2014. Instead, the court decision clears the way for the use of an interim map – already drafted by the federal three-judge panel in San Antonio – in the upcoming elections. Or, at least, that would seem to be the case, according to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who vowed to appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

“Today’s decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution,” Abbott said in a statement. “The Attorney General’s Office will continue defending the maps enacted by the Texas Legislature and will immediately take steps to appeal this flawed decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Washington DC court’s decision applies to the maps originally enacted by the Texas Legislature so the November elections will proceed as planned under the interim maps drawn by the federal court in San Antonio.”


The state submitted their maps for pre-clearance to the Washington, DC court as an alternative to asking the US Justice Department for its blessing. Federal law requires Texas and eight other states with a history of racial discrimination to submit their political maps to either the court or the Justice Department. It seems clear that Abbott thought he had a better chance with the court than with a Democratic Department of Justice. Now he wants to press forward to the Supreme Court.


In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, attorney Jose Garza, who represents the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said he had not ruled out “additional remedies” to the interim map used in the recent primary election, and that his team would continue to mull its options.


“We do have a decision, a far-reaching impact decision from a three-judge court in Washington, D.C. We do believe that there are additional matters that should be addressed by the District Court back in Texas,” Garza told reporters. “So we will begin meeting and discussing the best and most efficient way to raise those issues to the District Court in Texas.”


If the “additional remedy” were to be pursued, it would all but guarantee the November election date would have to be postponed, delaying many of the local down-ballot initiatives. Politically, it would also be a slap at Republicans, who have not hesitated to pursue the lengthening Voter ID cases.


As for Travis County, the court upheld the notion that coalition and crossover districts should be protected under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This would affirm Travis County’s contention that those white, black and brown voters who put U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett in office spoke with one voice.


“In fact, the Court has suggested that such districts will become more common over time, replacing majority-minority districts as waning racial polarization makes it easier for minority voters to elect their preferred candidates even when they do not make up the majority of a district’s voters,” according to the court opinion. “In other words, ‘ability’ may look different now than it did when the VRA was first enacted. Our responsibility to protect the rights secured by section 5 calls that we be sensitive to these new, but real, forms of minority voting power.”


State Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher, D- San Antonio, chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, expressed pleasure in the ruling in a call to attorney Renea Hicks, who carried Travis County’s Section 2 concerns to the three-judge panel in San Antonio.


“It was a wonderful ruling,” Hicks said simply. Later, Hicks declined to comment on the future. “There is too much dust in the air right now to figure it out.”


How much impact the decision is going to have for Travis County is uncertain. While Travis County can have a coalition district anchored in the county, Doggett already has moved on to run in the new Congressional District 35. The county is sliced among five different Congressional districts.


At least a couple of camps tied to the redistricting plaintiffs consider the court decision to be a shot over the bow, a chance to warn Republicans off redrawing district lines for the purpose of solidifying their own base.


But a Republican campaign manager, who asked not to be named, scoffed at the optimism of the Travis County Democrats. The decision of this court will have little impact, given the fact the Republican-driven Legislature will be back in town in January and presumably draw a new map, he said.


“You’ve got 150 people who were elected under the interim map,” he said. “They’re not going to want to change it.”


Republican leaders, who already have their hands full with a school finance lawsuit and another tough budget year, are not going to want to deal with redistricting again, he said. Most already consider the court-drawn map to be the best that Republicans are going to get going forward.


“This whole coalition thing is the last gasp of the 40-year-old white liberal progressive movement of Austin,” he said. “Do you know how much power Austin has at the Capitol? You need to tell them they need to be more concerned with protecting their city-owned utility and their high-taxing hospital district next session and not the future of Lloyd Doggett.”


The challenges of Travis County – and all other Section 2 claims – remain pending before the three-judge panel in San Antonio. Conventional wisdom is that the court is unlikely to take up a final decision before the Supreme Court rules.


Read the court ruling.

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