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Redistricting litigation gets underway this week

Starting tomorrow, a three-judge panel in San Antonio will hear one of the two redistricting-related lawsuits that have been filed in Texas. I figure this is as good a time as any to review the landscape as we head into this, so here are a few links of interest.

The Austin Chronicle has a Travis County perspective on things:

Half a dozen lawsuits over redistricting have been consolidated into a single case in San Antonio, and the city of Austin and Travis County are parties to one of them. The case is scheduled to be heard by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court (Western District of Texas) on Sept. 6. All six charge that Texas’ redistricting maps – not just the U.S. congressional maps but those for the state Senate, House, and Board of Education – violate the voting rights of minorities statewide.

That’s the greater context of this whole discussion. Austinites may be upset that the current map divides us too many ways, but if the map is overturned, it’s likely to be because of what it does to minorities elsewhere in the state – among the many plaintiffs are the Mexi­can American Legislative Caucus, the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, and African-American state Reps. Harold Dutton of Houston and Marc Veasey of Dallas.

[…]

[Some Democrats] assert that Austin and eastern Trav­is County constitute a “minority-coalition district” – one where Hispanics and blacks are not in sufficient numbers to elect candidates of their choice on their own, but where they could elect their candidates by forming coalitions either with each other or with like-minded whites.

That’s a point that Austinites, especially elected officials, hammered on – to no avail – in this spring’s redistricting hearings. Unlike the rest of the state – where white typically means Republican and nonwhite means Democrat – heavily Democratic Austin has been different. Numerous countywide or citywide elected officials are black or Hispanic, such as Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe or former Mayor Gus Garcia, or current City Council members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez; all four of those officials, along with many others, have spoken out against the GOP redistricting. Also, that same coalition has come together to elect whites such as Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson.

[…]

Rodriguez v. Perry – the suit filed by Austin state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and others, including the city and county – will argue that the coalition district was illegally divided. Renea Hicks, one of the Rodriguez attorneys, says the case will hinge on a passage written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Ken­nedy in a 2009 redistricting decision. In Bart­lett v. Strickland, the state of North Carolina argued that it was necessary to create a coalition district in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act, even though it meant violating a state law forbidding districts that divide counties. The court ruled against North Carolina, basically saying that the VRA’s protections for minorities do not extend to the right to form coalitions and thus did not require creation of coalition districts. However, Kennedy left open the question of coalition districts that already exist: “[I]f there were a showing that a State intentionally drew district lines in order to destroy otherwise effective crossover districts, that would raise serious questions under both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.”

Hicks’ burden will be to prove that intent. “The Legislature knows how Travis County works,” he says. “They’re familiar with voting patterns here. People testified to the House and Senate committees about it. There were maps proposed that would have maintained this area without chopping up the effective crossover district area. They were quite aware of it and decided to just run over the body, so to speak.”

Michael Li, the guru behind the excellent Texas Redistricting site, goes to BOR to discuss some of the things that the people who drew the maps did and did not do.

What didn’t happen was anything remotely resembling an open and transparent process leading up to development of the maps.

In each case, the legislative and congressional maps were developed by Republicans behind closed doors and released only a day or two before hearings on the maps. Heck, with the congressional map, the House Redistricting Committee didn’t even bother to take public testimony.

In the hurried floor debate on the congressional map, Senator Royce West (D- Dallas) called the process one of the least transparent he’s been involved in.

By contrast, emails released in the redistricting case show GOP congressmen and other insiders spending weeks behind closed doors carefully working out the most trivial details of district lines.

Click over to see some of the emails in question, or browse through Texas Redistricting‘s archives for more.

The National Journal, in a story that strongly suggests the “Perrymandered” maps may be illegal, notes that Republicans are under a big time constraint.

In Washington, lawyers representing the GOP state attorney general are simultaneously seeking preclearance for the map from a separate three-judge federal appeals panel. But a time bomb is ticking: if the D.C. court denies preclearance or, more likely, fails to rule on the issue by the November opening of Texas’s candidate filing period, the San Antonio panel could draw its own plan for 2012. “The state is running a very serious risk that there will be no precleared plan by the time the court decides a plan needs to be in place,” [MALDEF’s Nina] Perales argues.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” admits a high-ranking GOP state legislator close to the remapping process. The legislator bemoans that Republicans were in a box from the start, because there are no clear guidelines on what kind of plan would pass muster with the courts and few precedents as to which route would provide fewer obstacles to preclearance.

The calendar may be conspiring against Republicans: A new military-ballot law in Texas recently pushed the opening of the state’s candidate filing period earlier than ever. And Republicans’ decision to bypass the Obama Justice Department means that there will be a lengthy trial to determine preclearance in the D.C. court. Legal experts say this trial could conceivably drag on into December, hurting the chances that the GOP map will even get a verdict in time. And if the D.C. court finds any flaws in the map, there won’t be any time left for the GOP Legislature to tweak the map and resubmit it. “If the map fails to win preclearance,” says one GOP redistricting veteran, “it’s like it’s never existed in the eyes of the law.”

It goes on to list the possible changes we could see in a court-drawn map. Remember, there’s no shortage of alternate Congressional plans out there, and we haven’t even considered what might happen with the other maps. I don’t know what the likelihood is, but the potential for change is vast.

Finally, remember that all of this is taking place against a backdrop in which the Voting Rights Act is being directly challenged by Republicans who would rather not have to bother with all of this “protecting the rights of minorities” stuff. Here, the potential for change is also vast, but not in a good way. One way or another, what happens in the aftermath of the 2011 reapportionment is likely to shape the political landscape for decades to come.

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