Supreme Court Texas Redistricting Decision Could be Blow for Latinos, Advocates Fear

Voting rights advocates say they are worried that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Friday to block Texas election maps could be a setback for Latinos – and other under-represented voters – across the country.

Texas led the nation in the number of congressional seats gained – four – because of a huge population increase in the last decade. Latino leaders had hoped that the pivotal role of Hispanics in that growth would translate into at least three more Texas congressional districts where minorities would be the majority.

Maps drawn by federal judges would have given minorities more say in elections. But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear arguments about the maps.

Many Latino leaders and voting rights groups see the move by Abbott and the Republican-controlled Legislature as discriminatory against Latinos.

“The facts of this case that are undisputed are that Texas grew by four million people in 10 years, and 90 percent of that growth was minority, and 65 percent of that growth was Latino,” said Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which has led the fight for legislative and congressional districts in the state to be redrawn to expand minority voting.

“That growth accounted for the state of Texas’s four brand new congressional seats,” Martinez Fischer said. “What the big chill [of the Supreme Court’s decision] that should go up and down the spine of every Latino in the country is the fact that you could have an explosive growth not seen anywhere else in the country and not have an additional minority district.

“Then the Voting Rights Act will be meaningless,” he said. “It will have no meaning in America.”

The state’s Republican leadership says that their opposition to maps pushed by groups such as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus was not fueled by anti-Latino sentiment. GOP leaders said that the Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments, on January 9, bolsters their views.

“The maps approved by the Legislature did comply with the Voting Rights Act and did protect the interests of minority voters, particularly the interests of Hispanic voters in Texas,” said Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri  in a written statement. “We hope the Court will either restore the original district lines of the Legislature, or at the very least, make revisions to the district court panel's maps which are more in tune with the legislative intent. “

Federal judges in San Antonio issued new maps for the 2012 election in Texas after a lawsuit was filed over the redistricting maps drawn by the GOP-led Legislature. Minority groups – including the Mexican American Legislative Caucus – that sued claimed that the GOP plan didn't reflect the growth in the state's Hispanic and black populations.

Until the Supreme Court on Friday blocked the use of the maps issued by the federal judges, they were to remain in place until the lawsuit was resolved. The federal judges in San Antonio reasoned that the state would be unable to hold elections without the temporary maps.

The maps appeared to give Democrats a greater chance of winning seats in the state House and Senate than did the plans approved by those bodies and signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Minorities currently are the majority in 10 of Texas' 32 congressional districts. The new court-drawn map would have raised that to 13 out of 36 districts, an outcome the judges said better reflected the growth in the state's Hispanic population.

In the second of two separate court cases in the redistricting fight, a federal court in Washington has refused to approve the Legislature's redistricting plan without a trial, agreeing with the Justice Department that there was sufficient evidence to question whether it hurt minority representation.

At the beginning of November, the U.S. Justice Department said that the redistricting proposed by the legislature would reduce the ability of minority voters to elect the candidates they preferred.

Lauren Bean, deputy communications director for the Texas Attorney General, said in a statement that minorities have been able to elect representatives in the state.

“In 2010, Texas voters elected two new African American[s] and five new Hispanic Republican legislators to the Texas House of Representatives,” Bean said. “Additionally, Texans elected two new Hispanic representatives – both happen to also be Republicans – to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. Under the Legislature's maps, these minority incumbents have a good chance of being re-elected.

“To say that the Texas Legislature's maps are unfair to minorities is a claim that is not based in fact,” Bean added.

Martinez Fischer took issue with the assertion that minorities are treated fairly under Texas’ electoral process.

He said that while minorities may have gained representation in some districts in the past, in others they have lost the ability to have greater political influence.

“How can you grow by four million [mainly because of Latinos] and be at a net gain?” he said.

“Six judges have looked at this evidence in different ways and they all have come to the same conclusion,” Martinez Fischer said. “After a very long and deliberate trial, all three judges [in San Antonio] rejected the state of Texas’s approach. They were unanimous in the fact that Texas denied minorities the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice."

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, is also watching the Texas redistricting case with concern.

“Right now, all eyes are on Texas, because Texas had the biggest growth in congressional seats because of the dramatic growth in the Latino population,” said Rosalind Gold, NALEO’s senior director of policy, research and advocacy. “We are urging the Supreme Court to move quickly on this and to affirm the lower court’s maps so that Latinos in Texas can have a strong voice in the primary election.”

The Supreme Court decision to hear the GOP’s challenges, Gold said, places “a big question mark on whether Latino growth will translate into fair opportunity for electoral representation.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente