Use of Texas con­gres­sional map con­tested

Court asked to pro­hibit use of 3 dis­tricts — one in Austin — ruled il­le­gal.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Chuck Lin­dell clin­dell@states­man.com

With less than eight months un­til the next elec­tion sea­son be­gins, mi­nor­ity vot­ers and civil rights groups have asked a fed­eral court to pro­hibit Texas from us­ing con­gres­sional dis­tricts that were found to have been drawn in vi­o­la­tion of the U.S. Vot­ing Rights Act.

The mo­tion, filed Thurs­day night with a three-judge panel in U.S. Dis­trict Court in San An­to­nio, fol­lowed a March 10 rul­ing by the same panel that in­val­i­dated three dis­tricts, in­clud­ing one in Travis County.

That 2-1 rul­ing said the dis­tricts were drawn by Repub­li­cans to in­ten­tion­ally dis­crim­i­nate against Latino and black vot­ers — but it didn’t man­date any reme­dies or dis­cuss how to cor­rect the prob­lems.

Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton will op­pose the mo­tion, which also asked the judges to en­sure that a new, le­gal map was in place by July 1.

“We will be fil­ing a re­sponse de­tail­ing why the re­lief re­quested is im­proper at this stage of the lit­i­ga­tion,” said Marc Ry­lan­der, a spokesman for Pax­ton.

Pax­ton has ar­gued that there is no need to re­draw the con­gres­sional map be­cause the court in­val­i­dated dis­tricts that the Leg­is­la­ture ap­proved in 2011, while Tex­ans have been elect­ing mem­bers of Congress ac­cord­ing to a map that was adopted in 2013.

But, ac­cord­ing to the mo­tion filed Thurs­day, the three dis­tricts that were in­val­i­dated in the 2011 map were lit­tle changed in the 2013 ver­sion.

To let those dis­tricts re­main in force for the up­com­ing elec­tion would put mil­lions of Tex­ans at risk of elect­ing mem­bers of Congress “un­der a legally in­valid plan,” the mo­tion said.

“It can hardly be dis­puted that the pub­lic has an in­ter­est in hav­ing con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives elected in ac­cor­dance with the Con­sti­tu­tion,” the mo­tion said.

The fil­ing also urged the three-judge panel to act quickly, not­ing that can­di­date fil­ing for the 2018 elec­tion be­gins in Novem­ber, and Texas coun­ties would need time to re­align vot­ing precincts to match newly drawn bound­aries.

The mo­tion asked the court to or­der Texas of­fi­cials to sub­mit a new con­gres­sional re­dis­trict­ing plan by May 5, with a map due from the plain­tiffs one week later.

The goal is fi­nal, court-ap­proved dis­tricts by July 1, and the pro­posed sched­ule pro­vides “am­ple time” for the Leg­is­la­ture, which is in ses­sion un­til May 29, to draft a new map, the mo­tion said.

State Rep. Eric John­son, D-Dal­las, is vice chair­man of the House Re­dis­trict­ing Com­mit­tee and has called for hear­ings on the court rul­ing.

“The court’s con­cerns re­gard­ing the con­sti­tu­tional rights of mi­nor­ity vot­ers in the state of Texas should be taken se­ri­ously and ad­dressed with ur­gency,” John­son said Wed­nes­day in a let­ter, his sec­ond such re­quest to the com­mit­tee’s chair­woman, Rep. Cindy Bur­kett, R-Sun­ny­vale.

No com­mit­tee ac­tion is sched­uled, John McCord, Bur­kett’s chief of staff, said Fri­day.

“Chair­woman Bur­kett is con­tin­u­ing to mon­i­tor the de­vel­op­ments in the law­suit, but no hear­ings are sched­uled at this time,” he said.

The fight over dis­tricts be­gan in 2011, when the mem­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture be­gan draw­ing a map to ac­com­mo­date four new con­gres­sional seats awarded to fast-grow­ing Texas.

The re­sult­ing map was chal­lenged by mi­nor­ity vot­ers, civil rights groups and sev­eral mi­nor­ity mem­bers of Congress, lead­ing to the lon­gawaited rul­ing two weeks ago. (The court hasn’t yet ruled on a sim­i­lar chal­lenge to the re­drawn dis­tricts for the Texas House.)

The rul­ing de­ter­mined that Dis­trict 35 — held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — was im­prop­erly drawn with race as the pre­dom­i­nant fac­tor to min­i­mize the num­ber of Demo­cratic seats. By draw­ing Doggett’s dis­trict with a ma­jor­ity His­panic pop­u­la­tion ex­tend­ing into San An­to­nio, the Re­pub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture was able to “cre­ate the fa­cade of com­ply­ing” with the Vot­ing Rights Act while elim­i­nat­ing an ex­ist­ing Demo­cratic dis­trict, the panel ruled.

As a re­sult, the Demo­cratic strong­hold of Travis County was bro­ken into five con­gres­sional dis­tricts, four of them rep­re­sented by Repub­li­cans.

The panel also in­val­i­dated two Re­pub­li­can-held dis­tricts that judges said were drawn to di­lute the strength of Latino vot­ers:

Dis­trict 27 — held by U.S. Rep. Blake Far­en­thold, R-Cor­pus Christi — which in­cludes the Coastal Bend along the Gulf of Mex­ico and stretches north to in­clude south­ern Bas­trop County.

Dis­trict 23 — held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes — a sprawl­ing sec­tion along the Mex­i­can bor­der that ex­tends from near El Paso to the San An­to­nio area.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZ­IELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Dis­trict 35 — held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — was im­prop­erly drawn with race as the pre­dom­i­nant fac­tor, a court ruled.

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