SAN ANTONIO – The future of Texas' voting districts is again in question after a federal court Tuesday found evidence of discrimination in new district maps approved by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature last year.
The U.S. District Court in Washington wrote in a 154-page opinion that the maps don't comply with the federal Voting Rights Act because state prosecutors failed to prove that Texas lawmakers did not draw the new congressional and state Senate districts "without discriminatory purposes."
The ruling applies to the maps originally drawn by the Legislature in 2011, and not interim maps drawn by a San Antonio federal court that are to be used in the upcoming elections this November. The Washington court's Tuesday decision is most likely to impact the maps that will be used in the next election cycle in 2014.
Luis Vera, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, called the ruling "better late than never" and a win for his and other minority rights groups that sued the state over the maps.
"The three-judge panel unanimously found intentional discrimination across the state. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it," Vera said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Today's decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution," Abbott said in a statement.
How Texas redrew its political boundaries was closely watched after the state was awarded four additional U.S. House seats based on a booming population largely driven by minorities. Those congressional seats were carved equally into two safely Republican and two safely Democratic districts.
The ruling is the latest in a process that started in June 2011, when the Texas Legislature passed new political maps but failed to get them "pre-cleared" by the Justice department. That's required under the federal Voting Rights Act which calls for Texas and eight other, predominantly southern, states with a history of racial bias to submit their political maps to the Justice Department for compliance.
But rather than submit the maps to the department, the state chose to seek preclearance through the Washington court.
Nina Perales, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Tuesday's ruling seems to show the state's strategy backfired. MALDEF also was one of the groups that sued the state.
"It seems that Texas risked and lost more by going to the D.C. court than by going to DOJ," Perales said. "Particularly when you factor in the enormous expense of litigating a redistricting case."
The ruling comes months after lawyers for the state of Texas, the Justice Department and minority groups argued their sides in front of a three-judge panel in Washington. The two-week trial included dozens of witnesses as well as thousands of pages of documents on the redistricting process.
Texas' argument boiled down to politics: The state's lawyers said the map crafted by the Legislature reflected a GOP majority seeking to squeeze a partisan advantage out of the once-a-decade redistricting process, not a willful disregard for the Voting Rights Act. The state also maintained that lawmakers kept a cool distance from the process, leaving much of the work of drawing districts to legislative staff.
Through the trial, the three-judge panel appeared skeptical of Texas' arguments. The presiding judge, Rosemary Collyer, at one point told Texas' lawyers flatly, "It's really hard to explain (changes to the map) other than doing it on the basis of reducing minority votes."