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Federal court rejects GOP-drawn Texas voting maps

Stadiums and hospitals removed from the districts of black congressional members and country clubs newly drawn into those of white incumbents. A lawyer emailing “No bueno” to a Republican staffer about plans that risked leaving a paper trail and jeopardizing the legality of a voting map.

Those were among the evidence a Washington federal court used to determine that Texas Republican lawmakers discriminated against minorities while drawing new political boundaries, throwing out the maps as violations of the Voting Rights Act but likely not in time to affect the November elections.

The decision Tuesday by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is instead likely to reverberate in 2014, when some Texans could find their congressional and statehouse districts changed for the third time in five years.

The long-awaited ruling was hailed as a sweeping victory by minority rights groups that sued the state after the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed through new redistricting maps last year. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called the decision “flawed” and vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Better late than never,” said Luis Vera, attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the groups that sued the state. “It’s a hell of a victory.”

The court concluded that the maps didn’t comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. In a 154-page opinion handed down nearly seven months after a Washington trial, the three-judge panel ruled that state attorneys failed to prove that Texas lawmakers did not draw new congressional and state Senate districts “without discriminatory purposes.”

In some cases, the court wrote, black congressional members in Texas had economic drivers such as sporting arenas freshly carved out of their districts, though “no such surgery” was performed on any belonging to white incumbents.

“Anglo district boundaries were redrawn to include particular country clubs and, in one case, the school belonging to the incumbent’s grandchildren,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith, writing the opinion for the panel.

On the state Senate map, the judges said, one email sent to a leading Republican mapmaker indicated that staffers “feared their actions might create the appearance of impropriety” under voting rights laws. In the email, a lawyer advised “No bueno” to a plan that risked leaving a paper trail showing that some proposed changes were never going to be considered.

The court found no “direct evidence” that discrimination was behind how the maps were drawn – no emails or letters, for instance, that reveal state officials plotting to suppress minority voting. The panel instead looked to circumstantial evidence and then inferred an intent to discriminate.

Abbott said Tuesday’s ruling “extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution.”

With just two months until Election Day, the fallout from the ruling is unlikely to be felt until new maps are installed for 2014. Instead, voters in Texas this November will use interim political maps drawn last year by a different three-judge panel in San Antonio. That court is handling the lawsuit filed by minority groups, while the Washington panel took up the separate issue of whether the maps complied with the Voting Rights Act.

Known as seeking “preclearance,” Texas and eight other, predominantly Southern states with a history of racial bias must submit their political maps to the U.S. Justice Department for compliance review. State prosecutors, however, sought preclearance through the federal court in Washington rather than through the Justice Department.

Opponents said the state’s strategy of skirting the Justice Department backfired.

Nina Perales, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Tuesday’s ruling indicates that at least four state House seats, one state Senate seat and at least four congressional seats must be looked at again for 2014.

“It seems that Texas risked and lost more by going to the D.C. court than by going to DOJ,” Perales said. “Particularly when you factor in the enormous expense of litigating a redistricting case.”

How Texas redrew its political boundaries was watched particularly closely after the state was awarded four additional U.S. House seats because of its booming population. The surge has been driven almost entirely by minorities, who account for more than 87 percent of the population growth in Texas over the last 10 years.

Those congressional seats were split into two safely Republican districts and two safely Democratic ones. Yet in considering the congressional map as a whole, the Washington panel appeared troubled that minority lawmakers who found their former offices and “economic guts,” such as stadiums and hospitals, drawn out of their new district.

Texas’ argument boiled down to politics: The state’s lawyers said the map crafted by the Legislature reflected a GOP majority seeking to squeeze a partisan advantage out of the once-a-decade redistricting process, not a willful disregard for the Voting Rights Act. The state also maintained that lawmakers kept a cool distance from the process, leaving much of the work of drawing districts to legislative staff.

The state also argued it was only a “coincidence” that district offices and economic drivers were removed from minority districts and not those belonging to white incumbents, according to the court opinion.

“But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed,” the ruling said. “It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results.”


Associated Press Writers Chris Tomlinson and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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