A federal court panel rejected three Texas redistricting maps Tuesday, finding the new U.S. House and Texas Senate districts were drawn with the intent to discriminate against minority voters and noting evidence "strongly suggests" that the Texas House map improperly targeted Hispanic, black or Asian voters.
The ruling that the Legislature's Republican-drawn maps violated the Voting Rights Act is unlikely to affect November's elections, which will be conducted under a temporary set of maps drawn by a separate court panel in San Antonio.
However, one of the organizations that challenged the Legislature's maps said it had not yet decided whether to ask the courts to implement Tuesday's decision in time for the November election.
"We are not foreclosing that as potential option," said Jose Garza, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
Garza acknowledged the option faces logistical hurdles, and several other lawyers said the courts would be unlikely to intervene with the election 2 ½ months away and a slate of candidates selected after the May primaries and July runoff.
Calling it a "flawed decision," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.
"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.
Texas had asked a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to approve the maps in a process called preclearance -- a Voting Rights Act requirement for jurisdictions like Texas that have a history of discrimination against minority voters.
The U.S. Justice Department opposed approval of the maps for the U.S. and Texas Houses, but civil rights groups and other organizations opposed all three maps, including the Texas Senate.
On Tuesday, the judges ruled that Texas failed to meet its obligation under the Voting Rights Act to show that the maps, drawn during the 2011 legislative session, did not "have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, or language minority group."
Although the panel found no direct evidence that the maps were intentionally discriminatory, the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith noted several instances suggesting racial bias:
-- In the maps for Congress, three black Democratic representatives in Houston and Dallas were given new districts that excluded long-established offices where constituent services are provided. No Anglo incumbents were similarly inconvenienced, the court said.
The districts were further harmed when significant economic generators, including large businesses or universities, were relocated to adjacent Anglo districts, Griffith wrote.
"The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern is 'coincidence.' But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed," Griffith wrote. "It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results."
-- The Texas Senate map improperly targeted the Fort Worth district represented by Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, by "cracking" the minority population -- placing African American and Hispanic voters in three other districts that shared few common interests.
Texas lawyers said the move was best explained by partisan, not racial, goals -- a "plausible explanation," Griffith noted, if not for the way the Senate map was drawn.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo and chairman of the redistricting committee, escorted many Republican senators into an anteroom off the Senate floor to review drafts of maps. Democrats, and Davis in particular, were excluded from providing input, Griffith wrote.
"One would expect a state that is as experienced with (voting rights) litigation as Texas to have ensured that its redistricting process was beyond reproach," he wrote.
-- The 150 Texas House districts were redrawn without adding one "Hispanic opportunity district" -- where Hispanic voters have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates -- despite dramatic growth in the state's Latino population, the court found.
Tuesday's decision also found that mapmakers improperly diluted minority voting strength in three congressional districts, including District 25, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin -- although U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell disagreed, writing in a dissent that Doggett's district did not qualify for voting-rights protection.
All three judges -- two appointed by a Republican president, one by a Democrat -- agreed that Texas erred by failing to draw another minority opportunity district for Congress.
Texas has 10 districts where minority voters are able to elect preferred candidates -- unchanged despite adding four congressional districts because of population growth, even though 89 percent of that growth was fueled by minorities, the court said. One more minority district would have met voting-rights requirements, the court said.
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