Judges Strike Down 3 Gerrymandered Texas Districts

SAN ANTONIO (CN) – The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature racially gerrymandered several congressional districts in 2011 to counteract the growing number of Hispanic voters in the state, a panel of three federal judges ruled Friday.

The ruling paves the way for redrawn districts for next year’s midterm election that could chip away at the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a 2-1 ruling, U.S. District Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando L. Garcia noted there was “not just a hostility towards Democrat districts, but a hostility to minority districts, and a willingness to use race for partisan advantage” in the redrawn map.

The panel voided District 23, which stretches from San Antonio in central Texas to El Paso in the west; District 35, which runs in a narrow swath from San Antonio to Austin; and District 27, which runs from Lockhart, 33 miles south of Austin, south to the Gulf of Mexico.

“In addition, the evidence shows that mapdrawers were more than just ‘aware of’ race; they often referred to race in discussing the drawing of the districts, they paid close attention to the racial makeup of all districts, and they engaged in discussions about how to gain political advantage by disadvantaging Hispanic voters through the use of the ‘nudge factor,’” the 166-page majority opinion states.

The panel said that in District 23, 600,000 Hispanic voters were moved and 39 tabulation districts in five counties were split to dilute the influence of Hispanic voters. The judges found that mapdrawer Ryan Downton, a businessman and attorney from Austin, moved in lower-turnout Hispanic areas and moved out higher-turnout Hispanic areas in some areas of the map.

In a scathing dissent, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jerry Smith blasted Department of Justice attorneys’ “arrogance and condescension,” accusing them of “exhibiting contempt for Texas and its representatives.” He accused the Department of Justice of “overplaying its hand,” and said the maps were drawn for legitimate political purposes rather than unsubstantiated racial allegations.

“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,” the 28-page dissent states. “And the DOJ lawyers saw themselves as an expeditionary landing party arriving here, just in time, to rescue the state from the oppression, obviously presuming that plaintiffs’ counsel were not up to the task.”

Smith said the Department of Justice saw the case as a “potential grand prize” through which it could reimpose its power to preclear new maps. Texas was one of nine states that needed to preclear its maps before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement in 2013.

In 2012, the Supreme Court threw out Texas’ map for failing to get preclearance.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that panel’s ruling is moot because “there are no lines to redraw,” pointing out the 2011 maps were never put into use. He expressed confidence in Texas winning the case on appeal.

“We respectfully disagree with the redistricting panel’s majority decision,” he said in a statement Monday. “The maps currently in use are not the ones adopted by the Texas Legislature in 2011, which are the subject of the court’s opinion. The Legislature adopted the court drawn 2012 maps in 2013. The court was under a direct order from the Supreme Court to draw lawful districts. The adoption of those maps in 2013 mooted any issue with the 2011 maps.”

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa cheered the panel’s ruling, calling it a “victory for the voting rights of all Texans.”

“Republicans have ensured that the dark days of discrimination in Texas continue to loom, but the sun will soon shine,” Hinojosa said in a statement Friday evening. “In time, justice prevails.”

Still to be revealed is whether the Department of Justice will continue to fight the maps under President Donald Trump. It moved last month to dismiss its opposition to Texas’ tough voter identification law of 2011 – another fight launched under the administration of President Barack Obama.