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Texas high court urged to reject challenge to new legislative map

The governor and secretary of state argue lawmakers challenging the constitutionality of newly drawn Texas House of Representatives districts lack standing to sue.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case challenging the Legislature's newly apportioned districts for the state House and Senate.  

The underlying lawsuit was brought by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives and was later consolidated with another case brought by a state House candidate and two state senators. They argue the legislative maps outlined in last year's House Bill 1 violate the Texas Constitution's county-line rule.  

Codified in Article 3 Section 26, the county-line rule mandates state representative districts be contained within the boundaries of a single county or combined with an entire neighboring county to meet population requirements. HB 1, which was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature during a special legislative session last fall, broke up Cameron County, located on the state's southeastern tip, into three separate districts. One of them is House District 37, which Ruben Cortez is running to represent.

The plaintiffs asked the Travis County District Court to stop the state from using the new map. In response to the challenge, Governor Greg Abbott and Secretary of State John Scott, both Republicans, filed a plea to the jurisdiction in the case and argued HB 1 does not violate the county-line rule. 

After a panel of three state district court judges denied their motion to dismiss the case, Abbott and Scott appealed to the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court. 

Arguing on behalf of the state Wednesday, Principal Deputy Solicitor General Lanora Pettit argued that Cortez and MALC lack standing to bring the case.

Cortez "has not pled an injury because he asserts that he has to run in Willacy County instead of in Cameron, but because of the way the map’s shape has changed, there are parts of Cameron County that he also does not have to run in,” Pettit said.

She went on to say that if Cortez was able to prove some sort of negative economic impact on his campaign, then that could constitute an injury. But because he has not, he has no injury and therefore no standing to bring claims in this case.

Justice Evan Young questioned Pettit on her argument.

“I thought [Cortez] said that his behavior would change because he said he would now have to make further trips to introduce himself to new people in a different county… would that in itself qualify as a kind of injury?” Young asked.

Pettit conceded that it could, but emphasized that Cortez told the district court his campaigning behavior would not change if the new map is left in place.

The state argues the Mexican American Legislative Caucus also lacks standing because it has failed to show how its organizational purpose is germane to the relief it seeks.

Sean McCaffity, an attorney representing the caucus, began his arguments by explaining how and why his client has standing in the case. 

“MALC was founded in 1973 for the purpose of ensuring that Hispanic Americans, Mexican Americans and the Latino populations had appropriate representation in the state,” he said. “They have been found to have been a proper plaintiff in the last cycle's redistricting litigation in federal court.” 

McCaffity also relied on precedent from the Texas high court to show the caucus has standing in disputes over the county-line rule.

“The court addressed [this issue] in 1971, in Smith v. Craddick, and then again in 1981, in Clements v. Valles. Both of those cases were brought by legislators and voters to remedy defects with the House redistricting maps because they violated the county-line rule,” the attorney said.

The justices pivoted to examining the merits of the case and whether the violation alleged by the plaintiffs must be remedied by the courts. 

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht proposed that an injunction could not have been issued to stop lawmakers from adopting a map that violates the county-line rule during the redistricting process. He asked why courts should fix voting maps if lawmakers can address the issue during the next legislative session in 2023.

“Because the law is set and until the law is repealed, this is the law,” answered McCaffity. The attorney explained that the map will be used in this year's elections and will not be changed until the next census.

Furthermore, depending on how the court rules, lawmakers could get the impression that there is nothing to fix despite a clear violation of the county-line rule, McCaffity argued.

The Justices did not indicate when they will issue a ruling in the case.

The dispute is just one of several challenges to the state's new political maps.

In December, the 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. 

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, called the lawsuit a “preposterous attempt to sway democracy” in a tweet.

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