WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Texas lawmakers illegally gerrymandered one district by race when they drew up federal and state legislative districts in 2011 and later amended them in 2013, limiting the rights and power of black and Hispanic voters there but not in 3 other challenged districts.
“It was the challengers’ burden to show that the 2013 Legislature acted with discriminatory intent when it enacted plans that the court itself had produced,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion, calling a lower court, three-judge panel’s opinion that the districts were racially gerrymandered a “fundamental legal error. “[The Legislature] was not obligated to show that it had “cured” the unlawful intent that the court attributed to the 2011 Legislature.”
Alito went on to say the Texas Legislature’s efforts to redraw the map added to the argument that they had no intent to make districts discriminatory.
“There is no evidence that the Legislature’s aim was to gain acceptance of plans that it knew were unlawful,” he wrote. “[They] had sound reasons to believe just the opposite.”
But in her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the lower court was correct in their assessment of the map’s racially-charged intent and changes to the map were bound to be problematic. She broke it down into four points:
The Texas court adopted the map plans without “invidious intent.” It then approved the plans only after studying and modifying them under the higher court’s instructions. The legislature then made changes that would have otherwise been found a violation of the Voting Rights Act and, finally, they acted on the Texas court’s thorough review of the maps.
“This disregard of both precedent and fact comes at serious costs to our democracy,” she wrote. “It means that, after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas—despite constituting a majority of the population within the State—will continue to be underrepresented in the political process.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the high court’s decision in a statement released after the opinion was released. He hailed the court for protecting the state’s right to draw their own legislative districts while rejecting “misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters.”
“This is a huge win for the Constitution, Texas, and the democratic process,” he said.
Corey Goldstone, media strategist at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, was disappointed with the decision, and said the single gerrymander classification of one district was “small potatoes” compared the broader discrimination that is still allowed to proceed in Texas.
He said the court’s decision reinforced the importance of the Voting Rights Act and its ability to aid voters of color who were “either intentionally packed into districts or spread out among districts.”
“This sort of race discrimination should have no place in our democracy,” he said.
The underlying legal battle over alleged racial gerrymandering in Texas began as a challenge to district maps drawn by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature in 2011.
Under the Voting Rights Act, and because of the state’s history with racial segregation, it’s among the states that must submit new voter maps to the Justice Department or a three-judge panel for “pre-clearance” approval.
As a result of that challenge, in 2012, a federal district court drew its own district map and ordered its use in that year’s elections. That court’s plan gave three of the four new seats to Democrats while the original GOP plan gave the same number to Republicans.
Texas legislators challenged the court-ordered redraw saying it should have taken more input from the state and they won on appeal to the Supreme Court, which issued an unsigned opinion in 2012, ordering that a new map be drawn.
The Republican legislature took another stab at the district maps the following year, but once again, a federal judge invalidated some of the districts, holding they continued the discrimination of the earlier GOP map.
But in 2017 a Texas federal court sided with voters saying the state-drawn maps continue to water down minority voting power, prompting the latest appeal to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held in April, which lead to today’s decision.
During oral arguments, both Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor said taking this appeal could open the floodgates to them taking hundreds more every session. They stressed the three-judge panel’s role in overseeing Voting Rights Act “preclearance” maps and needing to wait until that panel had issued a final order. Breyer instead suggested the legislator’s present legal effort was working from a request to develop a new map and not an ordered map which they could or would then decide upon.
As a result, on Monday, the Supreme Court had two issues to decide. The first was whether the justices had the authority to determine the outcome of the case at all, given that the federal judges hearing the case did not issue or deny an injunction in the case. That is the bar that must be reached in order for the Supreme Court can review appeals from a three-judge district court.
“We have jurisdiction… to hear an appeal from an order of a three-judge district court “granting or denying . . . an interlocutory or permanent injunction,” wrote Alito in the opinion. “We have previously made clear that where an order has the “practical effect” of granting or denying an injunction, it should be treated as such.”
He also shot down fears about such a decision leading to a flood of redistricting cases to the high court.
“If a plan is found to be unlawful long before the next scheduled election, a court may defer any injunctive relief until the case is completed,” he wrote. “And if a plan is found to be unlawful very close to the election date, the only reasonable option may be to use the plan one last time.”
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court chose not to take on a new case on partisan redistricting for now. Instead, the justices are sending a dispute over North Carolina’s heavily Republican congressional districting map back to a lower court for more work.
The court’s order follows a ruling last week in which it declared that Wisconsin voters who sued over the state’s GOP-drawn legislative districts had not proven they have the right to bring their case in court. The justices ordered the court in North Carolina to examine the same issue.
On the surface, the North Carolina case doesn’t appear to have the same problem the high court identified in the Wisconsin lawsuit. It could return to the Supreme Court quickly, perhaps in time for the term that begins in October.
The case concerns a congressional districting plan in which 10 seats are held by Republicans and three, by Democrats. State Republican Rep. David Lewis said that he drew 10 districts because he did not “believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
In January, a three-judge court found that the map violated the Constitution and ordered the state to come up with a new plan quickly, in time for the 2018 elections.
But the Supreme Court delayed enforcement of the court order, mainly because the justices already were considering the partisan districting cases from Maryland and Wisconsin.