The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: A Victory for Travis

Court decision on districts raises possibility for fairer politics

By Michael King, March 17, 2017, News

Elsewhere in this issue is a News team feature on the long tradition of rhetorical and legal "Austin-bashing" at the Legislature ("The Texas Hammer," March 17); brainstorming the story, we had a difficult time winnowing the categories to fewer than a dozen. Incumbent pols who would sooner pawn their UT fraternity rings than return permanently to their sleepy hometowns earn their per diems slandering the "People's Republic," fully aware that back in their parishes, parochialism rules.

Nevertheless, Austinites can celebrate a real if potentially pyrrhic victory this week, as a federal court ruled that congressional district lines drawn by the Republican majority in 2011 are unconstitutional – with Democratic Travis County's sole Democratic district (of five) among the three declared particularly egregious. "The evidence is clear," wrote U.S. District Judges Xavier Garcia and Orlando Rodriguez, "that racial considerations predominated in the determination of what population to include in CD35. That [map-drawer Ryan] Downton and the Legislature also had the purpose of using CD35 to try to unseat Lloyd Doggett (who lives in Austin/Travis County) does not negate the finding that they used race to do so." ("Court Rules Texas Congressional Map Discriminates," March 17.)

In principle, the decision could mean that Texas districts will be redrawn more democratically (in both senses), and Texas could possibly be returned under the "preclearance" provisions of the Voting Rights Act. That's a long shot, and while the state hasn't announced an appeal, Attorney General Ken Paxton has noted his agreement with dissenting Judge Jerry Smith, who argues at length that the matter is moot because the 2011 lines were redrawn by the courts in 2013 and those boundaries were used for subsequent elections.

Barn Door Closed

Smith's dissent is admittedly much more entertaining than the majority's dogged laying out of the evidence of racial discrimination (accompanied by a truly daunting 443-page "findings of fact"). He disputes the ruling itself, but of necessity devotes most of his argument to myriad variations on the meanings of "moot" and "mootness." (Why "moot" is a more risible word than its cognate "meet" is a question for another day, although it does indirectly recall the legislative bumpkins who stride to the House lectern to declare, "This matter is mute!")

Smith's argument may in fact prevail on appeal (which would be directly to a U.S. Supreme Court inclined to wave away racial bias), but the fact remains that the court-drawn, interim lines were just that, designed to alter the map as little as possible for a functional, temporary version that still delivered the GOP's intended outcome: a congressional delegation unfairly weighted to their partisan advantage. The "mootness" argument by Texas Repub­lic­ans is akin to that of bank robbers who shrug, "It's true, we stole the money, but it's already been spent, and we don't give refunds."

Smith's approach is to suggest that it's cruel of the majority to tell the plaintiffs (primarily minority rights organizations MALDEF and the NAACP) that they might win on the merits, while it's just too late to matter. "Giving someone a shovel and telling him to dig a hole to China," the judge writes, "is just as pointless as telling him to do it with his bare hands."

National Reverberations

As Rep. Doggett points out in our feature, this struggle is not simply an arcane legal debate confined to Central and South Texas backwaters. "Crooked congressional districts, attaching distant communities across Texas to fragments of Travis Coun­ty," he told us, "continue to harm communities far beyond Austin." As Tom DeLay understood only too well, skewing the 36-member Texas delegation goes a long way toward skewing the entire Congress. Reactionary congressmen installed-by-districting in Travis County, across South Texas, in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston – against the expressed majority of the voters in those regions – dramatically empowers the right-wing minority that controls Republican primaries, helps polarize national politics, and unfairly weights the Congress and the federal government against not only progressive policies, but any functional federal government at all.

None of this is likely to change dramatically until we get reasonably nonpartisan districting rules, a prospect also made remote by the same people and process currently drawing the lines. In the meantime, these minority rights lawsuits doggedly establishing racial discrimination represent our small but best hope of enforcing a modicum of fairness upon an intentionally unfair political system. Another glimmer is a recent judicial interest in considering that extreme partisan redistricting is itself unconstitutional.

Reflexive Hillary Clinton-bashers on the left continue to blame the candidate for winning the popular vote but losing the presidential election; the nationwide legislative combination of radical redistricting and more explicit voter suppression is a much, much more deserving villain. And if we can't win in court – last week's victory is welcome, but arrives at a pace that seems virtually futile – we have to do even more, at the grassroots, to win at the ballot box. If Austin-bashers are to be disarmed, Austin voters need to do more heavy lifting.

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