The Supreme Court just boosted Republican chances to hold the House of Representatives today by throwing out maps drawn by a panel of judges, and ordering new maps for the state’s reapportionment.
To step back a bit, initially Texas lawmakers drew a redistricting map that advantaged Republicans and created no new Hispanic districts, despite the fact that 65% of the growth in the state – which gave it four new Congressional seats – came from Hispanics. A special three-judge federal court in Texas ruled that the maps violated the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and drew new districts as an interim plan. The Supreme Court ruled that the judges instituted those maps in an inappropriate manner.
The justices said the lower court had not paid enough deference to the Legislature’s choices and seemed to have improperly substituted its own values for those of elected officials.
The court’s unanimous decision, interpreted as a victory for Texas Republicans, extended the uncertainty surrounding this major voting-rights case, one that could play a role in determining control of the House of Representatives.
“A district court should take guidance from the state’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan,” the Supreme Court’s unsigned decision said. “That plan reflects the state’s policy judgments on where to place new districts and how to shift existing ones in response to massive population growth.”
Justice Clarence Thomas concurred only in the result and said he would have instructed the elections to proceed under the Legislature’s maps.
Thomas, then, just wanted the gerrymandered maps from the legislature to go forward. That will not happen. However, the new maps that will get drawn will unquestionably tend more toward the initial legislature’s reapportionment plan. That could swing as many as four seats from Democrats to Republicans, depending on how the lines finish up. This throws a good bit of uncertainty into the process, weeks before primaries in Texas were scheduled to occur.
Fortunately, the case did not deal with the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires the Justice Department to “pre-clear” the voting laws of a handful of states with a history of discrimination. Even though the lawyers on both sides acknowledged that had nothing to do with this case, Justice Thomas threw into his concurring opinion the idea that Section 5 should be struck down as unconstitutional. Basically the case hinged on the fact that the judges overstepped their boundaries by drawing new maps before the pre-clearance process completed. The judges could draw interim maps, but they had to take the legislature’s maps into account as a starting point, rather than submitting their own opinions and values into the reapportionment.
This means that the districts will only change in areas where there could be legal challenges for the maps, and it’s unclear how extensive that will fall. But the likely outcome is a stronger map for Republicans in Texas.