News Column

Lawyers Sound 2011 Themes at Redistricting Hearing

May 30, 2013

Almost two years ago, lawyers for Hispanic and black Texans faced off in federal court against the Texas attorney general's office over the state's new redistricting maps.

On Wednesday, they were back on familiar ground. Same players. Same court. Same issue.

And seemingly back to square one: No agreed-upon maps for Congress and the Texas House of Representatives, with election deadlines on the horizon. Candidate filing in the 2014 primaries begins this fall.

On the surface, the issue is undeniably dry: where to draw political boundary lines to account for Texas' population growth since 2000. But underneath, there are are weighty issues that make it as important as it is complicated. There's the continual political power struggle between Democrats and Republicans. And there's a history of racial and ethnic discrimination in Texas elections.

The current fight began in 2011, when the Republican-dominated Legislature passed maps with new boundaries for the Texas House, state Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. In large part, the maps benefited the majority party.

But the maps were never used.

Texas needed federal approval first-- though a process called preclearance, which is required in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of governments with a history of discrimination in elections. The federal government declined to give Texas' maps its blessing.

Several civil rights groups also challenged the maps by filing suit in federal court in San Antonio. They accused Republican lawmakers of discriminating against minorities and drawing boundaries that didn't take into account growth in the state's minority populations.

With elections looming, the panel of judges took it upon itself to create interim maps for 2012. They drew the so-called interim maps by taking into account arguments from the state and the civil rights groups.

Now, Gov. Rick Perry wants to make those interim maps permanent, as outlined in his call for the special legislative session that began Monday.

But Democrats and the civil rights groups are objecting. They say the Texas House and congressional maps still have problems and contain areas where minorities cannot elect candidates of their choice. (There is, however, consensus on allowing the state Senate map to stand.)

"It is clear there are constitutional issues that have not been taken care of," Renea Hicks, a lawyer for plaintiffs in Travis County, said during Wednesday's hearing.

David Mattax, a lawyer with Texas attorney general's office, disagreed. He argued that the judges already considered potential constitutional violations when they drew the interim maps.

The implications of the current redistricting drama could be widespread, possibly threatening to delay the 2014 elections, and the redrawing of district boundaries for Texas' 36 members of Congress and 150 state House members.

"There are so many contingencies," Hicks said.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer -- chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in San Antonio -- said Perry should allow legislators to make appropriate changes to the maps in Austin. And if they aren't permitted to do so, then Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said, "it's going to be challenged" in court.

Michael Li, a Democratic redistricting expert, said it's possible that election dates would have to be pushed back, but he said the judges are mindful of deadlines and will try to not move dates, like they had to do last cycle. Last year's primaries didn't occur until May 29, almost two months behind schedule.

"It's not as hard as last time," Li said.

The San Antonio court has asked for briefs to be filed next week, and the judges said they will call another hearing later -- probably after the Legislature passes the maps Perry ordered and after the U.S. Supreme Court rules in an Alabama case on the constitutionality of Section 5.

At this point, the only thing that is clear is that this process isn't close to ending.

Source: (c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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