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Boost to Claims That New Maps Hurt Texas Minorities

(CN) - A challenge to Texas' now-repealed 2011 redistricting maps survived a motion to dismiss, but a panel of federal judges tossed political gerrymandering claims over the plans adopted last year to replace them.

The Texas Legislature triggered the redistricting battle when it redrew maps in 2011, after the 2010 Census revealed that the population had grown by more than 4 million since 2000. The increase gave Texas four new seats on the U.S. House of Representatives.

Voters and various groups, including the Texas Democratic Party and the League of United Latin American Citizens, filed lawsuits alleging the redistricting plans were a product of gerrymandering by the Republican-controlled Legislature and would dilute minority votes.

Their lawsuits were transferred and consolidated before a three-judge panel in the Western District of Texas.

The state, meanwhile, filed suit in Washington, D.C., seeking a declaration that its redistricting plans "fully comply" with the Voting Rights Act. It lost, and the U.S. Supreme Court later rejected the first interim maps drafted by the Texas court.

Some of the parties submitted new interim maps - a compromise plan - that the judges in San Antonio adopted for the 2012 elections.

Late last June, the Texas Legislature ratified and adopted these interim maps, with a few changes, and repealed its 2011 maps.

On June 25, a day before Gov. Rick Perry signed the redistricting plans into law, the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the Voting Rights Act. These included the so-called "preclearance" requirement, which forced states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing election procedures or district lines.

The justices vacated the D.C. judges' preclearance denial in light of their ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, and suggested that at least some of the plaintiffs' claims were now moot.

Texas moved to dismiss, arguing that the entire case had become moot.

But the Texas panel allowed the case to proceed and let some voters additionally seek an order barring Texas from repeating the allegedly discriminatory redistricting that took place in 2011. It also allowed the Texas Democratic Party and Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa to add political gerrymandering claims over the 2013 plans.

On Tuesday the judges again rejected Texas' mootness assertion, saying "there is evidence that the Legislature has already engaged in both identical and substantially similar conduct" when it adopted the 2013 plans.

"Evidence submitted by plaintiffs and the United States indicates that the Legislature adopted the 2013 plans at least in part in an attempt to end this particular litigation, not because it conceded that any of its actions were wrongful or because it had abandoned any intent to engage in the same conduct," the panel wrote.

However, the judges dismissed the new political gerrymandering claims, saying the Texas Democratic Party failed to offer a "reliable standard for evaluating these claims."

"[S]imply saying that a partisan gerrymander is an illegal partisan gerrymander because it is so extreme is not a 'clear, manageable, and politically neutral standard' for measuring the burden on representation rights," the panel wrote, citing Supreme Court precedent. "It is merely a conclusion. And as noted, the totality of the circumstances and proportional representation approaches have previously been rejected."

Sitting on the panel were U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez, and 5th Circuit Judge Jerry Smith.

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