Court: Texas House Districts Unlawful, Unconstitutional
Panel of judges rules 2-1 against drawing of 2011 maps
By Richard Whittaker,
5:30PM, Thu. Apr. 20, 2017
The Western District Court of Texas ruled last month that the state’s congressional districts were drawn to suppress minority votes, but left unresolved the companion ruling on state House districts. That finally appeared today. Unsurprisingly, the court ruled that, yes, the House map was also racially gerrymandered.
The court may have an excuse for the month delay in the second half of its ruling in Perez v. Abbott. In a 153-page opinion and 151-page finding of fact, the court’s panel split 2-1 against the state. In the majority opinion, District Judge Xavier Rodriguez and Chief District Judge Orlando Garcia found that the 2011 maps drawn by the GOP-dominated Legislature deliberately suppressed minority voting.
The suit was brought by groups including the NAACP, the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, and the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force. In it, the parties argued that the Legislature did not simply fail to create sufficient legislative districts in which minority voters would be able to pick the representative of their choice (known as minority opportunity districts). In fact, when the number of such districts should have gone up by as many as 10, the plaintiffs argued they had actually dropped by one. Moreover, plaintiffs argued that state lawmakers employed deliberate racial gerrymandering in some districts, and called out districts that were so under- or overpopulated that they violated the concept of one person, one vote.
Garcia and Rodriguez did not uphold every argument about every district, but still ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the plaintiffs, finding multiple violations of both the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The panel also concluded that the following did take place:
• Intentional vote dilution in multiple districts across six major counties, including Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, and Tarrant, with the effect of overall vote dilution throughout the plan
• Racial gerrymandering in House District 117 in Bexar County, currently held by Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio
• One-person, one-vote violations in Bell, Hidalgo, Lampasas, and Nueces counties.
In total, the ruling found irregularities severe enough to violate the law in the maps for 17 districts.
Responding to the victory, MALC chair Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said, “The fight isn’t over.” The next step is an April 27 hearing to start discussing solutions. Anchia has argued consistently that the Legislature should step up and fix what it broke. He told the Chronicle: “It’s time to get back to the drawing board to allow every community, including Latinos and African-Americans, the unfettered ability to vote for their candidate of choice.”
Yet this wasn’t a complete victory for the coalition. In his 18-page dissent, 5th Circuit Judge Jerry Smith said his fellow justices “badly overreached in finding that Texas used race, rather than partisan advantage, as the predominant factor in the 2011 redistricting.” His argument was that the map was drawn to reduce the number of Democrats, rather than the number of minority opportunity districts.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which litigated the suit, praised the majority ruling. Senior voting rights attorney Allison Riggs wrote in a statement that “the state failed to draw districts that reflected the explosive growth in the minority population, and, indeed, fragmented those populations in order to avoid creating new minority opportunity districts.”
Similarly, Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza wrote: “Texas is one of the most diverse states in the nation, yet Republican-drawn maps were an indefensible exercise to deny people of color fair representation. Our diversity is a strength and today the courts have ruled that Republicans will no longer attempt to turn it into weakness.” He noted that the ruling represented the sixth recent election map and voter ID decision to be decided against the state.