After yet another judicial defeat, Texas should stop wasting tax dollars on appeals.
As we write this, the entire Texas coast is hunkering down from Hurricane Harvey, and hoping to avoid the wrath of a natural disaster. But for Texas Republicans, a political disaster of their own making already has struck. In just the past couple of weeks, they’ve suffered a trifecta of setbacks.
On Aug. 15, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in San Antonio ruled that the Legislature’s most recent attempt at drawing boundaries for congressional districts violated the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against minorities. It ordered that District 27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, and District 35, represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, be redone.
Then on Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, ruled that the latest incarnation of the state’s voter ID law — Senate Bill 5 — still doesn’t pass constitutional muster because the law was drafted with the intent of discriminating against Texas’s Latino and African-American citizens. It is comparable to a “poll tax” on minorities, she said.
The final blow was struck on Aug. 24. The same three-judge panel in San Antonio ordered lawmakers to redraw nine legislative districts in four counties — Bell, Dallas, Nueces, and Tarrant — due to “intentional discrimination” by race. Further, the Court ordered that both the congressional and state House boundaries be redrawn in time for the 2018 midterm elections and gave Attorney General Ken Paxton three days to decide if the state will do the job. If not, the Court will undertake the remedies itself.
The struggle between state officials and the courts began in 2011 when the GOP-led Legislature drew new congressional and Texas House district maps following the 2010 Census, and shortly thereafter passed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country. Over the past six years, the Legislature has written and rewritten these laws only to have each iteration overturned by federal courts. Four losses for redistricting; five injunctions against voter ID. As of 2015, the state had spent at least $8 million litigating this string of losses.
Despite the dismal record, Paxton rushed to file an appeal of the latest rulings. He is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the redistricting decision and to issue an injunction exempting Texas from having to produce a new map for the midterm elections. Given the unequivocal judgment of intentional discrimination in of all of these rulings, continuing to appeal is a risky proposition. Judge Ramos implied that the state’s history of discrimination may justify renewed federal supervision of its voting laws, a requirement that hasn’t existed since 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Texas has proven that we’re in need of oversight.
The legislators who drew these maps may tell themselves that the purpose was purely partisan, that they were trying to prevent Democrats from winning any elections, which is perfectly legal according to past rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. And they may declare that the voter ID law is to protect the integrity of the election process, despite the fact that in-person voter fraud is essentially non-existent. But these positions get harder and harder to defend after losing so many legal challenges.
We have no reason to think that legislators who voted for these laws hold bigotry in their hearts, but we can clearly see bigotry in their actions. That’s what “intentional discrimination” means. Nor do we have any reason to believe that the zeal with which Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott continue to appeal these rulings suggests an intent to discriminate against Latino and African-American Texans. What we can know is that too much money has been wasted defending the indefensible, and that these laws do significant damage to the state’s reputation and future prosperity. Texas continues to lead the nation in population growth, and in the last census, Latinos and African-Americans contributed nearly 90 percent of that growth. We believe it is in our state’s best interest to give up the appeals and follow the courts’ rulings in promoting fair and equitable elections for all of our citizens.
In the longer term, the Legislature should consider establishing an independent commission to draw district boundaries. A dozen states have already taken that route, establishing panels with varying degrees of autonomy from their legislatures. Creating truly competitive districts in which candidates must defend their positions is the best way to ensure that voters have real choices. It is also likely to cost taxpayers a lot less in legal fees.
We have no reason to think that legislators who voted for these laws hold bigotry in their hearts, but we can clearly see bigotry in their actions. That’s what “intentional discrimination” means.