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Supreme Court hears Texas redistricting case; minority representation & maybe Voting Rights Act at stake

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We're coming into court season, and the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to change the world on a number of fronts, or at least try. (I'll have more about the whole court problem shortly — it's not just the Supreme Court that's at issue.)

One case before the Court this season involves the redistricting map for (ready?) Texas. You can guess what happened: The population grew by a lot; most of that growth was Hispanic; Republicans own the legislature; the legislature has a map; and Washington has a Voting Rights Act.

It's a sure-fire party mix. Here's Slate's Dahlia Lithwick with the details (my emphasis and paragraphing):

The good folks of Texas have an election looming. Specifically, on April 4 (already pushed back from March 6) they are meant to go to the polls to vote in a primary. That’s problematic because they currently have no districting maps.

Or, to be more precise, they currently have three. They have the map that was used 10 years ago, before the population expanded by 4.3 million voters (of whom 65 percent are Hispanic), thus requiring that legislative lines be redrawn to reflect that minority voting will not be diluted under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. (That will mean four more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.)

Then we have the redistricting map drawn by the GOP-dominated Texas legislature, which is also obsolete, because under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, states with a history of discrimination in voting must be “precleared” by either the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before any election-related modifications can be put into place. A federal court in Washington is set to decide whether the Texas redistricting plan will be precleared, but possibly seconds before the April primary.

Enter the third set of maps, cooked up by a federal court in Texas—in part at the behest of the federal court in D.C., and several minority groups who say the new maps drawn up by the legislature in no way reflect the minority growth in the state. The Texas court thus drew up a set of “interim maps” to get Texas through this election crisis.

One might think that with two federal courts working off three sets of maps, over two dueling sections of the Voting Rights Act, all on a ticking deadline, the worst possible decision would be for yet another court to step in.

One would be mistaken. And so last December the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the interim maps and agreed to hear a challenge from Texas Republicans who don’t think the Texas courts were sufficiently deferential to the Texas legislatures’ maps in drawing up the new maps. The whole heap of it was argued this afternoon [January 9] at 1 p.m., and by the time the lawyers sat down at 2:20, it was clear that the justices had done little more than get us 80 minutes closer to an April deadline without much hope of solving the problem, much less solving it yesterday.
Got that? Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires that minority voting not be diluted. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that states with a history of voting discrimination have their redistricting maps precleared in Washington. Those precleared maps may not be available in time for the election (and in fact, may not be cleared, given the propensities of Texas Republicans).

Which brings us to the actual problem for Republicans — the existence of a "voting rights act." The state of Texas is arguing that the legislature's map be given automatic "deference," something that Justice Sotomayor says would amount to "turning Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act on its head."

As you can see, there are clearly two targets here. One is the redistricting map. Will Texas Republicans successfully blunt the voting power of almost 3 million Hispanics for the next decade?

The other target is the Voting Rights Act itself, especially Section 5. From Lithwick's report:
Justice Anthony Kennedy says, in a manner likely to strike terror into the hearts of anyone who thinks this case will spell the death of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, “Isn’t it odd that this is a Section 2 suit but Section 5 seems to be driving it?” In case you’re wondering whether he thinks it’s unfair that the states with a history of racial discrimination bear extra burdens under Section 5, he then adds, “Texas is at a tremendous disadvantage here!”
Will the nakedly partisan Republicans on the Supreme Court (which chose this case on its own, remember) find a way to achieve either or both of these goals?

It will be a hard slog no matter what they do — three maps (none of which passes full legal muster); three courts (Supreme Court, a D.C. district court and its preclearing decision, a Texas lower court with its interim map); and a very tight deadline.

It's not certain the Gang of Five will succeed; but they're sure putting on a wonderful show of trying. A good clear article, and a good case to keep an eye on. (Additional analysis here if you're so inclined.)


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