Supreme Court Throws Out Texas Electoral Maps

Associated Press + More

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday threw out electoral maps drawn by federal judges in Texas that favored minorities. The decision ultimately could affect control of the U.S. House of Representatives and leaves the fate of Texas' April primaries unclear.

The justices ordered the three-judge court in San Antonio to come up with new plans that pay more attention to maps created by Texas' Republican-dominated state Legislature. All four of the state's new congressional seats could swing based on the outcome.

But the Supreme Court did not compel the use of the state's maps in this year's elections, as Texas wanted. Only Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have gone that far.

The court's unsigned opinion thus did not blaze any new trails in election law or signal retreat from a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, as some supporters of the law feared would result from this case.

Still, the outcome appeared to favor Republicans by instructing the judges to stick more closely to what the Legislature did, said election law expert Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, law school.

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Controversy over the maps arose from redrawing political boundaries based on results of the 2010 census that found that Texas had added more than 4 million new residents, mostly Latinos and African-Americans, since 2000. The minority groups complained they were denied sufficient voting power by Republican lawmakers who sought to maximize GOP electoral gains in violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Texas will have 36 seats in the next Congress, a gain of four districts. A divided court in San Antonio drew maps that differed from the Legislature's efforts, giving Democrats a chance to prevail in three or four more congressional districts. Republicans now represent 23 of the 32 current districts.

The high court said the judges appeared in some instances not to pay enough attention to the state's choices. The judges made mistakes in their plans, particularly in altering district lines for state legislative and congressional seats in parts of the state where there is no allegation of discrimination on the part of the Legislature, the high court said.

"In the absence of any legal flaw in this respect in the state's plan, the district court had no basis to modify that plan," the justices said, talking about state House districts in north and east Texas.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the ruling was a clear victory for the state.

"The Court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it's clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles," he said in statement.

But Jose Garza, who argued the high court case on behalf of the minority groups and Texas Democrats, said Abbott is "celebrating too early." He said he expects the new maps to look a lot like the ones the justices threw out. Garza said he believes the biggest problem with the court-drawn maps is that the judges "could have done a better job of explaining themselves."

Texas Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis said she views the decision as essentially endorsing the judges' work in making changes to her Fort Worth area district. Davis filed a lawsuit against the state Senate plan after Republicans split Latino and African-Americans she currently represents into three districts, weakening her re-election prospects.

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The Supreme Court acted quickly, just 11 days after hearing arguments and a month and a half after intervening in the case, but set no deadline for new maps to emerge from the court in Texas. State officials have said they need to have something in place by February 1 to hold primary elections, already delayed once, on April 3. The Texas Republican party also has said that Texas may have no voice in the Republican presidential nominating process if the primary is held later than mid-April.