AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that a multifaceted challenge to state legislative district maps brought by a group of lawmakers, a political candidate and Latino rights groups is mostly barred by governmental immunity and a lack of standing.
At the heart of their challenge, the plaintiffs – the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Tejano Democrats, state Democratic Senators Roland Gutierrez and Sarah Eckhardt and Texas House candidate Ruben Cortez Jr. – argued that the maps run afoul of the state constitution’s county-line rule, which says state representative districts must be contained within the boundaries of a single county or combined with an entire neighboring county.
The lawsuit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Secretary of State John Scott, both Republicans, claims that a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature during a fall special session last year violated the county-line rule by breaking up Cameron County, which Cortez is running to represent.
Abbott and Scott sought dismiss of the case based on the argument that the plaintiffs lack standing and the claims are barred by governmental immunity. After a panel of three state district court judges denied their motion to dismiss, the governor and secretary of state appealed to the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court.
In her 38-page opinion for the majority Friday, Justice Debra Lehrmann agreed with Abbott and Scott that the Mexican American Legislative Caucus lacks standing for its claims brought under Article 3 Section 26 of the Texas Constitution – which codified the county-line rule – because there is no traceable injury to the organization or its members. However, Lehrmann found Cortez does have standing since he is running to represent the district in question.
Citing court precedent, Lehrmann wrote that “the burden is on the State to show that non-compliance with Section 26 is ‘either required or justified to comply with the one-man, one-vote decisions.’” The judge concluded there is adequate evidence to support Cortez’s claims and waive immunity for the state.
The court's majority found Cortez did not sue the proper state defendant, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, but allowed him to replead his case before the trial court because the error is curable.
Lehrmann does not conclude the map itself has violated the county-line rule.
The plaintiffs also alleged the state’s newly drawn legislative maps violate Article 3 Section 28 of the Texas Constitution, which directs the Legislature to take up redistricting during the first regular legislative session after the release of census results. Because census results were released after the Legislature convened in the spring of 2021, the challengers argued new districts should not have been drawn until the next regular legislative session, starting in early 2023.
Abbott called lawmakers back to the state capital to draw the new maps last fall. Those maps, having been signed into law, are being used in the 2022 midterm elections.
The Republican officials argued that while Section 28 directs when the Legislature is required to take up the issue of redistricting, it is not barred from doing so earlier.
Lehrmann agreed, finding the claims over the timing of redistricting are “facially invalid and thus barred by [governmental] immunity.”
“Section 28 provides a mechanism to ensure that the Legislature exercises this power in a timely fashion following each decennial census, but it neither expressly nor impliedly forecloses this power from being exercised at another time,” she wrote.
Lehrmann was joined in the majority by five other states, while three dissented.
Neither the state officials nor the plaintiffs in the case immediately responded to a request for comment on the ruling.
The dispute is just one of several challenges to the state’s new political maps.
In December, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the Lone Star State, claiming it violated the Voting Rights Act by weakening the voting power of minorities in its new congressional and legislative maps. The DOJ is asking a federal judge to rule that the maps are discriminatory and enjoin the state from enforcing them, as well as provide interim maps until the state can redraw them in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
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