The long, drawn out legal drama over Texas congressional district lines makes its way to the Supreme Court, where they will hear oral arguments Tuesday. The case could result in a requirement for the state of Texas to redraw its congressional districts for the third time in ten years. It could also give states a way to defend against claims of gerrymandering.
This is not the only case over gerrymandering that the Supreme Court will hear this term, two other cases from Maryland and Wisconsin target congressional district maps that “can be too partisan.” The Texas case focuses on how lawmakers draw the district lines based on voter data.
The long legal saga over the Lone Star State’s congressional and statehouse maps stretches back to what state lawmakers decided right after the 2010 census. And the outcome now could influence how states draw new congressional maps after the census in 2020.
“The states always watch these cases very carefully because they’re trying to see how much they can get away with in redistricting,” said Danielle Lang, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center who filed a brief in the case.
Texas has challenged an August ruling by a panel of three district court judges that ordered a quick redrawing of the current congressional map, put in place in 2013. The panel found it unconstitutional because state lawmakers approved a map with intentional vote dilution in the 27th District and racial gerrymandering in the 35th District.
The 27th District, located in Central Texas and along the Gulf Coast, was recently vacated by Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold. The 35th District, including parts of Austin and downtown San Antonio, is held by Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett.
The Supreme Court put the lower court order on hold in September while it reviews the case, which it will decide before the end of the term in June.
If the judges side with the Texas lawmakers and voting rights groups that challenged the state’s map, it could trigger a redrawing of congressional districts. Such a decision could affect the 2018 elections, but primaries were held in March and primary runoffs are on May 22, so it would more likely change the map for 2020.
Texas has already once before adopted a San Antonio court-ordered change to their congressional map after they redistricted the state following the 2010 elections:
Amid legal wrangling over the Legislature’s maps, the court drew temporary maps ahead of the 2012 elections. Texas lawmakers formally adopted those maps in 2013 and have used them for the past three election cycles.
In 2017, the same court found that the 27th and 35th congressional districts “unlawful” redistricting was carried over from the 2011 map to the 2013 map that the court drew and the legislature adopted.
Now the court has decided that its own map made in 2013 was intentionally racist and diluted voters in those two districts. They claim that by adopting the 2013 map made by their court, Texas did so “as part of a litigation strategy” to insulate that map from challenges and “did not engage in a deliberative process to ensure that the 2013 plans cured any taint from the 2011 plans,” the district court ruled.
Now, at the Supreme Court, Texas argues that the Legislature can’t engage in intentional discrimination if it votes to put in place a congressional map that a district court had imposed on the state.
“Plainly, it did not,” the Texas brief states. “A legislature does not engage in racial gerrymandering (or intentional vote dilution) by embracing, as its own, districts that a federal court ordered the State to use after expressly concluding that they sufficed to address every ‘plausible’ constitutional or statutory objection.”
For decades under the Voting Rights Act, Texas was on a list of states and localities needing the federal government’s permission to change election laws, an imposed “safeguard for minority voting rights” called preclearance. The U.S. Supreme Court wiped clean the list in 2013 and lifted federal oversight for Texas and other jurisdictions, noting that conditions for minority voters had “dramatically improved.”
But the ruling left open the possibility that future, purposeful discrimination could mean a return to preclearance.
If the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agrees with Texas, voter rights groups say states could then adopt interim congressional maps to use them as shields from future litigation.