Federal court: Discrimination in Texas voting maps

SAN ANTONIO (AP) ? Texas Republican lawmakers discriminated against minority voters while drawing new political boundaries, a federal court ruled Tuesday, rejecting a plan pushed by the state’s GOP leaders in a decision that likely comes too late to affect the November elections but is set to reverberate to 2014.

In some cases, black congressional members in Texas had economic drivers such as sporting arenas freshly carved out of their districts, though “no such surgery” was performed on any belonging to white incumbents, according to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“Anglo district boundaries were redrawn to include particular country clubs and, in one case, the school belonging to the incumbent’s grandchildren,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith, writing the 154-page opinion for the three-judge panel.

The long-awaited decision was hailed as a sweeping victory by minority rights groups that sued the state after the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed through new redistricting maps last year. The court concluded that the maps didn’t comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and that state attorneys failed to prove that Texas lawmakers did not draw new congressional and state Senate districts “without discriminatory purposes.”

But with just two months until Election Day, the fallout from the ruling is unlikely to be felt until new maps are installed for 2014. Instead, voters in Texas this November will use interim political maps drawn last year by a different three-judge panel in San Antonio. That court is handling the lawsuit filed by minority groups, while the Washington panel took up the separate issue of whether the maps met the Voting Rights Act.

Known as seeking “preclearance,” Texas and eight other, predominantly southern, states with a history of racial bias must submit their political maps to the U.S. Justice Department for compliance. State prosecutors, however, sought preclearance through the federal court in Washington rather than through the Justice Department.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying Tuesday’s ruling “extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution.”

Opponents said the state’s strategy of skirting the Justice Department backfired. Luis Vera, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the ruling was “better late than never” and an unequivocal win for his and other minority rights groups that sued the state.

“The three-judge panel unanimously found intentional discrimination across the state. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Vera said, noting that he and other attorneys closely read the lengthy opinion before trumpeting any conclusions.

How Texas redrew its political boundaries was watched particularly closely after the state was awarded four additional U.S. House seats because of its booming population. The surge has been driven almost entirely by minorities, who account for more than 87 percent of the population growth in Texas over the last 10 years.

Those congressional seats were split into two safely Republican districts and two safely Democratic ones. Yet on the congressional map as a whole, the Washington panel appeared troubled by minority lawmakers who found their former offices and “economic guts,” such as stadiums and hospitals, drawn out of their new district.

Texas’ argument boiled down to politics: The state’s lawyers said the map crafted by the Legislature reflected a GOP majority seeking to squeeze a partisan advantage out of the once-a-decade redistricting process, not a willful disregard for the Voting Rights Act. The state also maintained that lawmakers kept a cool distance from the process, leaving much of the work of drawing districts to legislative staff.

The state also argued it was only a “coincidence” that district offices and economic drivers were removed from minority districts and not those belonging to white incumbents, according to the court opinion.

“But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed,” the ruling said. “It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results.”

The ruling comes months after lawyers for the state of Texas, the Justice Department and minority groups argued their sides in front of the three-judge panel in Washington. The two-week trial included dozens of witnesses as well as thousands of pages of documents on the redistricting process.

Through the trial, the three-judge panel appeared skeptical of Texas’ arguments. The presiding judge, Rosemary Collyer, at one point told Texas’ lawyers flatly, “It’s really hard to explain (changes to the map) other than doing it on the basis of reducing minority votes.”

Nina Perales, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Tuesday’s ruling indicates that at least four state House seats, one state Senate seat and at least four congressional seats must be looked at again for 2014.

“It seems that Texas risked and lost more by going to the D.C. court than by going to DOJ,” Perales said. “Particularly when you factor in the enormous expense of litigating a redistricting case.”


Associated Press Writers Chris Tomlinson and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.