Federal Court Strikes Down Discriminatory Texas Congressional District Lines

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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A federal court ruled that the GOP-controlled Texas state legislature racially gerrymandered three congressional districts to blunt the growing influence of minority voters, in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

“Gerrymandering” refers to the practice of manipulating the boundaries of a legislative district to the benefit on an incumbent, political party, or group of voters. The Constitution requires state legislatures to redraw congressional districts in their states every ten years, after the decennial census.

The 2-1 ruling was handed down by a three judge panel. Judges Xavier Rodriguez, a George W. Bush appointee, and Orlando L. Garcia, a Bill Clinton appointee, found the district lines unlawful. Judge Jerry Smith, a Ronald Reagan appointee, dissented from the ruling. The majority conducted a thorough, detail-oriented analysis, configuring the various populations in the three districts with traditional redistricting criteria to determine if there was discriminatory purpose or impact.

“The record indicates not just a hostility toward Democrat districts, but a hostility to minority districts, and a willingness to use race for partisan advantage,” the majority wrote.

Smith wrote a blistering dissent accusing the Obama-era U.S. Department of Justice, which supported the plaintiffs challenging the law, of playing raw politics.

“It was obvious, from the start, that the DOJ attorneys viewed state officials and the legislative majority and their staffs as a bunch of backwoods hayseed bigots who bemoan the abolition of the poll tax and pine for the days of literacy tests and lynchings,” he wrote. “And the DOJ lawyers saw themselves as an expeditionary landing party arriving here, just in time, to rescue the state from oppression, obviously presuming that plaintiffs’ counsel were not up to the task.”

An appeal to the Supreme Court is likely to follow.

“This is a huge victory for voting rights plaintiffs, but I am increasingly pessimistic in the medium term,” UC Irvine School of Law professor Rick Hasen wrote on his Election Law Blog. “I expect the post-Kennedy Gorsuch Supreme Court to be quite hostile to voting rights claims, allowing much partisan gerrymandering and minority vote dilution without adequate court supervision.”

The biggest effect of the ruling, Hasen says, is that it provides the Justice Department with the pretext to submit Texas to preclearance under the VRA, through which the federal government would have to approve changes to Texas voting laws before they take effect.

The decision marks the second time in the last nine months that a federal court has ruled that the Texas state legislature engaged in discriminatory legislating. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state’s voter ID law in July 2016 because of its disparate impact on minority voters. They declined to reach a decision as to whether the state legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in enacting the law, remanding that question to a lower court.

The Obama Justice Department also supported the plaintiffs challenging the law in this case. DOJ stepped back from the litigation in late February. Though they have not withdrawn from the case entirely, they did move to dismiss their claim that Texas acted with discriminatory intent in enacting the law.

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