WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court handed Texas Republicans a partial victory Friday, tossing a court-drawn electoral redistricting plan that favored minorities and Democrats but leaving the future of the state's political maps - and possibly control of the U.S. House - in the hands of two federal courts with Texas' April primaries looming.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ordered a three-judge court in San Antonio to craft a new map that pays more deference to one originally drawn up by Texas' GOP-led Legislature. The immediate effect was to scrap the interim map the San Antonio court drafted that would have favored Democrats to pick up four new congressional seats Texas will add in 2012.
Republicans, led by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, heralded the ruling as a clear victory for the state.
"The Court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it's clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles," he said in statement.
But the Supreme Court didn't go as far as Texas wanted, which was to implement the maps the Legislature drew for this year's election. Doing so would have rewritten existing election law as well as the Voting Rights Act. Only Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have gone that far.
Still, the outcome appeared to favor Republicans by instructing the judges to stick more closely to what the Legislature did, said election law expert Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, law school.
After the 2012 election, Texas will have 36 seats in the next Congress, a gain of four seats. Under the map initially drawn by the San Antonio court and thrown out on Friday, Democrats would have been favored in three or four new seats. The GOP holds 23 of the current 32 seats.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said the San Antonio judges particularly erred in altering the borders of legislative and congressional districts in areas of the state where the allegation that the Legislature's map discriminated doesn't apply.
Although Republicans were quick to say Friday's decision will benefit them, Democrats and minority groups said that's not so.
Jose Garza, who argued on behalf of minority groups and Texas Democrats at the Supreme Court, said Abbott, the Texas attorney general, is "celebrating too early." Garza said he expects the new maps drawn by the San Antonio court to look very similar to the ones rejected Friday.
Garza said he interpreted the Supreme Court's ruling, in part, as a call for the San Antonio court to better explain its decisions.
Others involved in legal efforts opposing the Legislature's map echoed Garza.
"This is not a victory for Texas," said Nina Perales, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of several groups involved in legal efforts to throw out the Legislature's map. "They wanted their unprecedented maps in place, and Texas hasn't been allowed to do that."
Perales said she expected the Supreme Court to remand a decision on the maps to the San Antonio court and said she was confident that minority groups would be protected even if the new baseline for creating a map was the Legislature's original draft.
Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, said Friday that she saw the decision bolstering the judge's decision to make changes to her Fort Worth-based district. Davis filed a lawsuit against the state Senate plan after her district was carved into three pieces, splitting Latino and African-American voters.
Beyond the jousting about how to interpret Friday's ruling was a reality that the electoral battlegrounds in Texas will remain hazy for the foreseeable future. Both Democrats and Republicans see Texas as potentially key for control of the U.S. House, but until the new maps are in place, neither side will have a clear sense of how it might fair in the state.
The Supreme Court didn't set a deadline for the San Antonio court to produce an acceptable map, but the clock is ticking toward Texas' scheduled April 3 primaries. The primaries have already been pushed back from March 6, and both parties expect the date to be pushed back again — a prospect causing consternation among Republican leaders who worry the GOP presidential race will be decided before Texas votes.
Meanwhile, a separate three-judge federal court panel in Washington heard testimony this week about whether the map drawn by the Texas Legislature violated the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of discrimination to get advance approval before changing the way they conduct elections. That proceeding will continue next week, with closing arguments set for February. With thousands of documents and dozens of hours of testimony to consider, a decision from that panel could be months away but could also affect the composition of Texas' maps.
The legal battle over Texas' maps was prompted by the results of the 2010 census, which found that Texas added more than 4 million residents since 2000, most of them Latinos and African-Americans. Minority groups and Democrats have maintained that they are being denied deserved voting power by GOP lawmakers seeking maximize electoral gains.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.