The Republican-controlled Texas state legislature racially gerrymandered a handful of congressional districts in order to diminish the electoral influence of the state’s minority populations, according to a San Antonio federal court ruling issued late on Friday night. The two-judge majority wrote in their opinion, “This Court finds that map drawers acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength or otherwise violated the Fourteenth Amendment and that Plaintiffs are still being harmed by the lines drawn as the direct product of these violations.” The ruling was the culmination of a long redistricting case pitting state Democrats, minority groups, and the Obama Justice Department against the Texas Republican leadership and legislature over the course of six years.
A potential consequence of this ruling is whether the state of Texas will once again have to seek federal approval before changing voting laws, a practice known as preclearance. The practice applied to Texas and several other Southern states with a history of racial discrimination, though that changed as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The state is likely to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The new ruling mentions the 23rd, 26th, 27th and 35th congressional districts. The 23rd district covers much of West Texas and the Mexican border across to San Antonio, and is currently represented by Rep. Will Hurd. The 26th district covers a suburban area north of Dallas/Fort Worth and is represented by Rep. Michael Burgess. The 27th district covers part of the Texas coast on the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the outskirts to the southwest of the capital city of Austin, and is currently represented by Rep. Blake Farenthold. The 35th district covers a stretch between San Antonio and Austin, and is represented by Rep. Lou Doggett. Doggett is the only Democrat representing the four districts named in the ruling. Hurd has been identified by both parties as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the 2018 election. He narrowly won a rematch with his Democratic predecessor by one point, in a district with a 68 percent Hispanic population that Hillary Clinton won by 3 in the presidential election. The court ordered the Texas legislature to redraw lines for the 23rd, 27th and 35th districts.
This is the latest in a series of legal rulings against congressional redistricting in the aftermath of the 2010 census. Other courts have ruled against Republican gerrymandered maps in Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.
“This Texas ruling is another major legal victory for fairer maps in America,” National Democratic Redistricting Committee General Counsel Marc Elias said in a statement. “Yet again, courts have sent a clear message that unconstitutional racial gerrymandering and violations of the Voting Rights Act will not stand in the United States of America. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee will act quickly on a proactive legal strategy that will build upon these recent victories.”
Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Executive Director Jessica Post said, “Texas Republicans illegally diluted the voices of Hispanic voters, and this ruling is an important step towards giving all Texans fair representation.”
“The Texas congressional map engineered by Republican legislators diminished the voices of specific groups of voters just to protect GOP power. This court decision, along with recent rulings in Virginia, Alabama, and Wisconsin, mark important progress in the fight to protect and enfranchise all voters and are blows against the artificial Republican majorities the GOP created at minority voters’ expense.”
“The federal court further confirmed what we’ve known all along: Texas intentionally discriminated to disenfranchise Latino and African American voters. This is unacceptable and that is why I led the effort at the Justice Department to challenge these maps. But our work here is far from over,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement.
“Republicans have ensured that the dark days of discrimination in Texas continue to loom, but the sun will soon shine. In time, justice prevails,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said.
No statements on the court ruling have been released by the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, the Republican National Committee, or the Texas Republican Party.
UPDATE: Read this analysis of the case from Election Law Blog’s Rick Hasen. He calls the ruling “a major victory for voting rights plaintiffs,” and notes there is a real question of whether or not Texas will be subject to Section 5 preclearance for as long as ten years.