Win for Both Sides in Texas Redistricting Fight
(CN) - While it's too late to stop Texas from using interim redistricting maps in next year's elections, opponents can proceed with their claim that the maps are discriminatory, a panel of federal judges ruled.
The state's redistricting battle was set off by the Legislature's redrawing of maps in 2011 after the 2010 Census showed the population had grown more than 4 million since 2000. The increase gave Texas four new seats on the U.S. House of Representatives.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the federal government to approve the redistricting plans, but state officials were sued by various groups who claimed the maps were a product of gerrymandering by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Groups like the Texas Democratic Party, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the state's Mexican American Legislative Caucus said the redistricting plans would dilute minority votes.
Their lawsuits were transferred and consolidated before a three-judge panel in the Western District of Texas.
Meanwhile, the state filed suit in Washington, D.C., seeking a declaration from a three-judge panel that the redistricting plans comply with the Voting Rights Act.
But the Washington judges refused to approve the new maps, so the judges in Texas had to draft interim redistricting plans for the 2012 elections. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the first interim maps for departing unnecessarily from the state's plans.
After going back to the drawing board, the Texas judges came up with an interim plan that the state used for its 2012 elections, though the legal wrangling delayed last year's voting.
In late June, the Texas Legislature ratified and adopted the interim maps drawn by the district court judges in San Antonio, and repealed its 2011 maps.
The U.S. Supreme Court added a twist with its June 25 decision to strike down the so-called "preclearance requirement" of the Voting Rights Act, which forced states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing election procedures or district lines.
Texas officials swiftly moved to dismiss the Texas proceedings as moot. The state argued that passage of the 2013 plans repealed the 2011 plans, so the 2011 maps can never be used to conduct another election and thus pose no threat to the plaintiffs.
But some plaintiffs said they plan to amend their complaints to challenge the 2013 plans, while others said they would revise their existing claims over the 2011 plans.
The three-judge panel in San Antonio refused to dismiss the case Friday.
"While Texas may have voluntarily ceased or diminished the allegedly illegal conduct, it has not conceded the illegality of the conduct and has steadfastly maintained that its actions did not violate plaintiffs' rights," the unsigned ruling states. "The fact that the Legislature has adopted the court's interim plans in an attempt to curb this particular litigation is no assurance that it will not engage in the same conduct in the next legislative sessions or any session thereafter. ... Given these circumstances the court finds that there exists some cognizable danger of recurrent violation such that plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief with regard to the 2011 plans are not moot."
The court also tossed Texas' claims that the plaintiffs must file a new lawsuit and request a new-three judge panel to challenge the 2013 redistricting plans.
Finally, the court granted the Texas Democratic Party leave to file amended complaints adding political gerrymandering claims over the 2013 plans.
Sitting on the panel were U.S. District Judges Jerry Smith, Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott praised the judges for allowing next year's elections to proceed using the new maps, but said the fight is not over.
"The state will continue to respond in court to the unwarranted challenges to the new maps by the Obama administration and various plaintiff groups," he said in a statement. "Texas has prevailed each time the redistricting litigation has reached the U.S. Supreme Court and remains confident that the Legislature's maps will be vindicated, either at the San Antonio federal district court or at the Supreme Court, if necessary."
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, blamed Abbott for his failure over the last four years to finalize satisfactory maps.
"Here we are halfway through 2013 and Greg Abbott has been unable to finalize maps that federal courts are willing to say aren't discriminatory," Hinjosa said in a statement Friday. "Since Greg Abbott can't handle his duties as attorney general he isn't qualified to be our governor. It's time for new leadership in Texas."