The Quorum Report website http://www.quorumreport.com, January 20, 2012 – Although not yet pre-cleared, Court says deference should be paid to legislative intent.
The U.S. Supreme Court today tossed out interim legislative and congressional maps drawn by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio, ruling that maps adopted by the Legislature earlier this year should have been used as a starting point.
The decision by the court sends the case back to the San Antonio panel with instructions to draw maps that give greater deference to the state plan while making adjustments where lawmakers’ choices either stand a “reasonable probability” of failing a preclearance review under the Voting Rights Act or where other VRA challenges “have a likelihood of success on the merits.”
In a broad rebuke of the San Antonio panel’s decision, the Court rejected the panel’s assertion that it was required to draw a map independent of the state plan because maps approved by lawmakers haven’t yet been pre-cleared under the VRA.
“To the extent the (San Antonio) Court exceeded its mission … and substituted its own concept of ‘the collective public good’ for the Texas Legislature’s determination of which policies serve ‘the interests of the citizens of Texas,’ the court erred,” the Court wrote.
With the Court basically telling the San Antonio judges to try again, today’s ruling throws into doubt the state’s ability to hold primary elections on April 3. Despite the specific talk on timelines that emerged in oral arguments earlier this month, the order today offers no guidance on what can be done to keep the April 3 primary date or until how late a date the primary can be delayed.
The San Antonio panel in drawing its interim maps in November said it could not build on a state plan that hadn’t yet been pre-cleared. It claimed it could draw an independent map governed by neutral redistricting principles that nonetheless adopted portions of the state plan while making changes to increase minority opportunity districts.
The Court today noted “the difficulty of defining neutral legal principles in this area,” adding that redistricting decisions are usually political judgments made by elected officials and not judges.
The solution then, the Court wrote, is to defer as much as possible to legislative decisions.
“To avoid being compelled to make such otherwise standardless decisions, a district court should take guidance from the State’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan,” the Court wrote. “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.”
Instead of disregarding the state’s plan when creating its interim map, “the state plan serves as a starting point for the district court,” the Court wrote. “It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appropriately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court’s own preferences.”
The Court also faulted the San Antonio panel for making changes to equalize population among House districts and to cut the number of split voting precincts that were in the state plan without offering sufficient justification. Also, the Court signaled potential problems in the San Antonio panel’s creation of a coalition minority opportunity congressional district – CD 33 – in the DFW Metroplex.
While the Court threw out the current set of interim maps, it also did not order the wholesale use of the state plan on an interim basis, as had been requested by Attorney General Greg Abbott. And of perhaps more consequence long term, the Court order did not address the constitutionality of the preclearance section of the VRA.
The plaintiffs challenging the state plan indicated today that they would continue the fight at the district court level.
“The Court rejected the request by Texas in this appeal to be allowed to implement its redistricting plans despite the fact that the plans have not been precleared under the Voting Rights Act,” said Nina Perales, lead attorney for the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force. “We believe the plans discriminate against Latino voters and are pleased that the Supreme Court refused to allow Texas to proceed with its discriminatory redistricting plans. We look forward to further proceedings in the trial court to secure more fair interim maps for all Texans.”
Abbott today applauded a “swift decision” by the Court that “will allow Texas to move forward with elections as soon as possible, under maps that are lawful.”
“The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders,” Abbott said. “As the Justices point out, courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the State. The Court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it’s clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles.”
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