Re­dis­trict­ing trial goes to panel of judges

Hurd tes­ti­fies as state’s fi­nal wit­ness in case that could im­pact 2018 midterm elec­tions

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Jeremy Ger­lach jger­lach@ex­

SAN AN­TO­NIO — Fed­eral judges in a re­dis­trict­ing trial over Texas’ al­leged racial ger­ry­man­der­ing heard clos­ing ar­gu­ments in San An­to­nio on Satur­day in a case that could have ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for the 2018 midterm elec­tions in the state.

The trial is part of an on­go­ing law­suit filed in 2011 by a coali­tion of civil rights groups and in­di­vid­u­als who claim the state has sup­pressed mi­nor­ity vot­ing rights in at least three con­gres­sional dis­tricts.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, tes­ti­fied Satur­day as the state’s fi­nal wit­ness. He rep­re­sents Con­gres­sional Dis­trict 23, which is one of three dis­tricts found by a fed­eral court March 10 to be drawn along racially dis­crim­i­na­tory lines. The others are Dis­trict 27 in Cor­pus Christi and Dis­trict 35 along the San An­to­nio-Austin cor­ri­dor.

Hurd de­fended the ra­tio­nal­ity of the bound­aries of Dis­trict 23, one of a rel­a­tively few gen­uine “swing” dis­tricts in the na­tion.

“If more dis­tricts were like mine, we’d have bet­ter cal­iber peo­ple in Washington,” Hurd said. “My dis­trict is com­pet­i­tive, and that’s a good thing ... be­cause it forces peo­ple to talk to a broader sense of the com­mu­nity.”

‘Not their top choice’

At­tor­ney Luis Vera, rep­re­sent­ing one of the plain­tiffs, the League of United Latin Amer­i­can Ci­ti­zens, or LULAC, said Hurd’s ap­pear­ance was more of a “stump speech” de­signed to dis­tract the judges from the real ar­gu­ments over racial dis­crim­i­na­tion at hand in the case.

“Hurd is a good man, and I don’t have any dis­re­spect for him,” Vera said. “But for 80 per­cent of the Lati­nos in his dis­trict, he was not their top choice.”

“The only rea­son for him com­ing here to­day was for the judges to at­tach a face to that dis­trict,” Vera said.

The March 10 court rul­ing was handed down by the same three­judge panel that is han­dling the cur­rent trial.

These judges, Or­lando Gar­cia and Xavier Ro­driguez of the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Western Dis­trict of Texas and Jerry Smith of the 5th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals, heard ar­gu­ments on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the in­terim bound­aries for the con­gres­sional and some state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts but is­sued no de­ci­sion Satur­day and gave no in­di­ca­tion when they would is­sue a rul­ing.

The plain­tiffs have pressed for a sweep­ing set of new dis­tricts drawn be­fore the 2018 elec­tions. The state is fight­ing to re­tain the cur­rent maps, which were drawn on an in­terim ba­sis but have been used for two elec­tion cy­cles.

Vera told the panel that Texas’ politi­cians have a long his­tory of “crack­ing and stack­ing” Latino vot­ers — lim­it­ing their vot­ing power by crowd­ing them into small num­bers of dis­tricts or di­lut­ing it by break­ing them into sev­eral groups spread among ma­jor­ity-white dis­tricts.

“This state has gone af­ter Lati­nos, di­rectly,” Vera said. “Any­one can come up here and ar­gue what they want, but that’s what’s hap­pened.”

Law­mak­ers missed chance

Mark Gaber, an­other at­tor­ney for the plain­tiffs, ar­gued that Texas ac­tu­ally had a chance to solve many of the re­dis­trict­ing is­sues when law­mak­ers met in 2013 fac­ing a court or­der, but still failed to fix sev­eral prob­lems.

“We’ve demon­strated po­tent ev­i­dence that (state leg­is­la­tors) drew these dis­trict lines with dis­crim­i­na­tory in­tent,” Gaber said. “Even af­ter (2013), the state con­tin­ued to act in a dis­crim­i­na­tory (way).”

Matthew Fred­er­ick, deputy so­lic­i­tor gen­eral for the Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice, coun­tered that the plain­tiffs had not met the nec­es­sary stan­dard of proof re­quired to prove dis­crim­i­na­tion un­der Sec­tion 2 of the fed­eral Vot­ing Rights Act.

“When the Texas Leg­is­la­ture acts, we have to as­sume they are act­ing con­sti­tu­tion­ally,” he said. “That’s a pre­sump­tion ... and the plain­tiffs have, in fact, pro­vided lit­tle — if any — ev­i­dence to dis­prove that point.”

Re­gard­less of which side the judges fa­vor, Vera noted, the case seems des­tined to be im­me­di­ately ap­pealed and then taken up by the Supreme Court.

“We’ve been fight­ing this fight for years,” he said.

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