The Supreme Court has sanctioned electoral districts in Texas that many believe discriminate against Latinos and other minority voters.
In a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that the state's Republican lawmakers did not break gerrymandering rules when they redrew the boundaries of state house and congressional districts in 2011. That reversed a decision by a federal court in Texas, which forced officials to create different electoral maps for the 2012 elections.
Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the revised boundaries were still biased against Latinos, and accused Republicans of employing a “litigation strategy” rather than being sincere about ending discrimination. The decision set up the Abbott v. Perez case that the Supreme Court settled on Monday. Greg Abbott is the Republican governor of Texas.
“Our legislative maps are legal,” Abbott proclaimed on Twitter after the Supreme Court announced its decision. “Democrats lost their redistricting claims.”
Ken Paxton, the state's GOP attorney general, called the ruling “a huge win for the Constitution.” He said that “once again, Texans have the power to govern themselves,” adding: “The court rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts and rejected by the misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch, voted in favor of Abbott. Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, argued that courts should assume Texas lawmakers acted in “good faith” when trying to assess claims of discriminatory intent. The court did find that the boundary lines of one state House district are illegal.
Among those who criticized the ruling was Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola University. He was involved in the Texas case while serving as deputy assistant attorney general under President Obama. Levitt told the Huffington Post that the high court's decision “essentially says, ‘Go ahead and discriminate.'”
He continued: “If you get caught, worst thing that happens, you’ll have to slap a Band-Aid over it, worst-case scenario, which is a serious problem. Texas was accused of doing the most serious thing there is in our legal system ― intentionally abusing state power to take action against people because of their race. The court essentially said if you put a happy face on it, it’s fine.”
Levitt expressed hope that the district lines may still be changed if the Justice Department uses a Voting Rights Act statute to place Texas under federal supervision. However, Richard Hasen of the University of California at Irvine, an authority in election laws, wrote in an op-ed for Slate that Alito's “good faith” statement complicates efforts to prove that the state intentionally discriminated.
The district boundaries are preventing Latinos from gaining political influence that their numbers suggest they should have, according to Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the Texas chapter of Common Cause. “There is massive population growth in Texas, driven predominantly by minorities, that’s not translating into voting power because of these maps that are so heavily gerrymandered,” he explained.
Gutierrez went on to say that “it is time for Texans to take up the fight for fair maps by establishing an independent redistricting commission (because) in a democracy, politicians have no business choosing their voters, it is the voters who should be choosing their politicians.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed. In the court's minority opinion, she wrote: “After years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas — despite constituting a majority of the population within the state — will continue to be underrepresented in the political process. Those voters must return to the polls in 2018 and 2020 with the knowledge that their ability to exercise meaningfully their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will.”
Sotomayor blasted her colleagues, declaring that “the court today does great damage to that right of equal opportunity.” She said the justices in the majority failed to recognize “the overwhelming factual record.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan sided with Sotomayor.
The district maps will remain in place for this fall's elections, which could be bad news for Democrats, who have also been contesting a voter-identification law that Republicans passed. One federal court struck down the requirement, but another judge ruled in April that it was valid. Critics of voter ID laws contend that the mandates disproportionately affect low-income people, who tend to vote for Democrats.
The Associated Press pointed out that Republicans hold about two-thirds of the seats in the Texas Legislature. The claim that district maps are unfair is not a new one, as Democrats have long accused GOP officials of ensuring their majority by creating discriminatory maps. Redistricting following the 2010 census sparked an escalation in the controversy. In 2009, Republicans held just a two-seat edge in the state house.