Texas redistricting fight is boon to lawyers

CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The fight in Texas over the once-a decade redrawing of election districts is a boon to lawyers with a court battle still raging four years after the 2010 census.

Since the 1970s, litigation over redistricting has taken an average of about six of every 10 years.

The legal fight is so fierce in Texas because the political stakes are high. Texas added four congressional seats after the 2010 census – more than any other state – and Democrats hope growth in the Hispanic population eventually will turn the nation’s most populous Republican-dominated state a shade of blue. Republicans, who hold every statewide office and large legislative majorities, are trying to hold onto their political dominance.

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The heart of the lawsuits is over the Voting Rights Act of 1968, which requires the drawing of election lines to make sure minorities get a chance to elect people who represent their interests. The 2010 census showed that 89 percent of the population growth in Texas came from minorities.

But when it came to fitting those new seats in the map, Republican lawmakers in 2011 made sure three of them favored Republicans, who tend to be white. And so the latest saga of redistricting litigation began.

Texas politicians have drawn creative political districts to perpetuate political power since the 1870s, when conservative Democrats wanted to deny recently freed slaves the chance to win any elections following Reconstruction. Democrats dominated the congressional delegation until former U.S. Rep. Tom Delay, R-Houston, convinced Republican lawmakers to redraw them in 2003 to give Republicans a better chance of winning.

That was the first time the Legislature had redrawn districts in the middle of the 10 years cycle, and Republicans have held a majority of the Texas congressional delegation ever since.

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Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, defending the Republican 2011 redistricting plan, argued that while drawing maps that discriminate against ethnic groups is illegal, there is nothing wrong with Republicans drawing maps that help the party stay in power. He argued that the Legislature didn’t intend to discriminate against minorities, only Democrats who happen to make up most of the minorities in Texas.

This fight has bounced around federal courts for the last three years and currently is based in San Antonio, where three federal judges rejected Abbott’s argument, suspended the Legislature’s 2011 maps and drew their own map for the 2012 election to deal with the worst abuses.

The 2012 election added two minority Democrats and two white Republicans to the Texas congressional delegation while the fight over the maps continued. Abbott, who is now running for governor, advised the Legislature in 2013 that the court-drawn map was about as good as they could expect and convinced the lawmakers to make the judge’s map official.

But minority groups, including the NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, argued that the 2012 maps did not go far enough in ending discrimination. They called on the court to draft yet another congressional map that would give minorities even more voice.

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“The original legislative plans intentionally discriminated against minority voters fragmenting them into disparate districts and diluting their voting strength,” the League of United Latin American Voters argued in the latest court papers. “The Court’s interim plan … somewhat ameliorated this statutory and constitutional violation but the underlying injury to the minority voters remains.”

Abbott lost his argument that the court’s 2012 maps were good enough and the judges have set a trial for July 15. In the meantime, the court-drawn maps remain in effect.

The judges could change the map again for the 2014 election. No matter how they rule, both sides are expected to appeal the decision.