WASHINGTON – Three federal judges weighing the legality of Texas' new political maps reacted with skepticism Tuesday when the state's lawyer suggested the intent of the redrawn boundaries was to maximize the influence of Republicans, not to minimize the influence of minorities.
The U.S. Justice Department and a coalition of minority groups contend the legislative and congressional maps the Texas Legislature drew last year recut districts in a way meant to dilute the state's burgeoning minority voting population. They say the maps violate a section of the Voting Rights Act that requires states with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices to get so-called "pre-clearance" from the Justice Department before making electoral changes.
Texas is gaining four congressional seats this year due to population readjustments made in the 2010 census. That has increased the redistricting stakes, with Hispanics and Democrats often clashing with the GOP-controlled Legislature about how the lines should be drawn.
John Hughes, a lawyer for Texas, which is seeking to keep the maps in place, said during closing arguments before a Washington federal court panel that the maps were the result of partisan gerrymandering that didn't violate federal law. He argued that "a decision based on partisanship" is not based on race, even if it results in minority voters having less political influence.
"Political motivation is not evidence of racially discriminatory intent," he said.
All three judges expressed doubt about that line of reasoning.
"It's really hard to explain (changes to the map) other than doing it on the basis of reducing minority votes," presiding judge Rosemary Collyer.
Judge Thomas Griffith also pressed Hughes: "Doesn't the law require map makers to look at the consequences?"
Timothy Mellett, a Justice Department lawyer, said the federal government contends there is overwhelming evidence the new maps would reduce minority voting clout, and that the burden should be on the state to prove racial motives weren't taken into consideration.
He also portrayed the state as unwilling to give a full account of how the maps were drawn, saying the state's claim that nearly all decisions were made at the staff level with minimal input from elected officials was simply not credible.
"The fate of the congressional delegation, 100-plus lawmakers, is being decided ... and (Gerardo) Interiano is a lone wolf?" Mellett said, referring to the Texas House's top redistricting staffer. "I find that implausible."
The Justice Department and the state were each given an hour each to make closing arguments Tuesday. Each of the minority groups was given 15 minutes to address the court. The groups mostly backed up Justice's arguments.
John Tanner, a lawyer for the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the evidence showed Texas clearly sought to reduce minorities' voting sway.
"The state broke up these districts with a racial purpose," He said. "And with a racially discriminatory effect."
Gerald Hebert, a lawyer representing State Sen. Wendy Davis, who has sued maintaining her Senate district was cut apart on racial grounds, said his client — though white — was a clear choice of minority voters. He said his client was dismissed when she enquired what was going on during the redistricting process and that it reflected the state's attitude toward the Voting Rights Act.
"Every time she wanted to see a map, they patted her on the head and told her to go away," he said.
The federal panel in Washington hasn't indicated when it might rule in the case, but the judges reiterated Tuesday that they would like to move as quickly as possible. In addition to two weeks of testimony, each side submitted thousands of pages of documents as additional evidence and each will be filing additional legal briefs to the judges next week.
The Washington trial has continued even as attention shifted to a federal court in San Antonio that is also grappling with the redistricting issue. After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected interim maps the court initially drew, it asked the San Antonio court to redraw the maps with more deference to the ones originally drawn by the Legislature.
The San Antonio court gave Texas and the coalition of nine groups until Feb. 6 to agree on temporary maps that would remain in place through November's election, or see the state's April 3 primaries delayed. But on Monday, an attorney for one of the groups said the settlement talks had stalled, putting the primary date in jeopardy.
In both proceedings, there's a lot on the line.
Both Democrats and Republicans believe the state will be an important factor in the battle for control of the U.S. House. Adjustments in Texas House and Senate maps could also affect the balance of power in the Legislature, though Republicans will almost certainly maintain control of both.