Special session on redistricting is damage control

Chris Tomlinson

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When three federal judges in San Antonio released interim maps in November 2011, Democrats jumped for joy at how many seats they’d gain in Congress and the Texas House. Their grand plans, though, were short-lived.

The U.S. Supreme Court interceded and said the lower-court judges had gone too far. Since neither that court, nor the one hearing another case in Washington D.C. had made a final ruling, the San Antonio judges could only repair the most egregious constitutional violations in the Legislature’s maps for the 2012 election. The San Antonio judges therefore redrew their maps, and Republicans maintained unquestioned control over Texas politics.

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But earlier this year the court in Washington D.C. ruled that Texas Republican lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in drawing their maps. That clears the way for the San Antonio judges to return to the drawing board, and led Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session on redistricting to do damage control.

At Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s urging, Perry ordered lawmakers to pass “legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans” used in the 2012 election. In other words, the Legislature should give up on the maps condemned in Washington and quickly adopt the maps drawn in San Antonio before those judges can come up with something new.

Something more like the maps they produced in November 2011.

The attorney general’s logic, as expressed by his attorneys appearing before the San Antonio court on Wednesday, is hard to beat. Federal judges would never draw an unconstitutional map, so the one they drew for the 2012 elections must be fair. Therefore, if the Legislature adopts those maps, then the redistricting problem is solved.

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The minority groups that brought the lawsuit in the first place — including the NAACP, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund — heartily disagree. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the caucus, told his fellow lawmakers on Friday that the court-drawn maps used in 2012 should only be the starting point.

“The interim map does not address any of (our) claims … and it doesn’t address any of the findings by the D.C. court,” he said. He has recommended that during the special session, the Legislature should reopen redistricting completely and consider new census data as well as the detailed ruling by the court in Washington.

The two Republican committee chairmen responsible for redistricting, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo and Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, have promised to consider amendments and even alternative maps, if they’ll make the 2012 maps “more legal.” They have scheduled hearings next week to consider all alternatives.

Considering any changes, though, could blow up the special session. Two federal courts heard hundreds of hours of testimony and reviewed thousands of pages of documents to determine that the Legislature’s original maps were unconstitutional. Introducing all of that evidence to argue for changing the 2012 maps could take months and a special session is limited to 30 days.

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Perry was also very specific in his call, saying he only wanted lawmakers to adopt the existing maps. And even if the Legislature and Perry were to agree on new maps, there is nothing to stop additional lawsuits or court reviews.

The three judges in San Antonio did not give any indication of whether they thought the adoption of new maps, either drawn by them or created by lawmakers from scratch, would end the lawsuit. But when ordering Texas to use the 2012 maps, the court explicitly said the maps were “not a final ruling on the merits of any claims” of discrimination.

Quite likely, whatever the Legislature does in the next three weeks, the product will become just another tool in the ongoing fight over Texas’ political maps. If past decades are any indication, redistricting will be settled in 2017. Just three years before the next census in 2020, after which the whole process will begin again.