Court Finds Two House Districts in Texas Were Illegally Drawn

27th and 35th districts were drawn on the basis of race, judges rule

A federal court found that the drawing of Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s 35th district violated federal law. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A federal court found that the drawing of Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s 35th district violated federal law. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 15, 2017 at 8:02pm

A federal panel ruled Tuesday that the drawing of two Texas House districts violated federal law and that the state’s congressional map needs to be redrawn ahead of the 2018 midterms.

The unanimous ruling from the three-judge panel found that the 35th District, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, and the 27th District, represented by Republican Blake Farenthold, were drawn primarily on the basis of race, violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. 

The ruling could also have implications for efforts to ensure Texas voting proposals are pre-cleared by the federal government before becoming law.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement called the ruling “puzzling,” and said he intends to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

“We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to decide whether Texas had discriminatory intent when relying on the district court,” Paxton said. 

The ruling is part of a yearslong saga over Texas’ congressional map.

Earlier this year, the panel ruled that the 2011 versions for the 35th, 27th, and the 23rd District, represented by GOP Rep. Will Hurd, violated federal law.

[Texas Isn’t Only State Where Redistricting Could Be Factor in 2018]

But in 2013, before that ruling was issued, a new map was drawn amid ongoing litigation. The Texas government argued that the new map solved the issues found in the 2011 map, but plaintiffs in the case said some of the 2011 lines carried over into the 2013 map.

The federal judges sided mainly with the plaintiffs, finding that two of the three previously invalid districts were unchanged in the new map.

“Rather than draw fair maps, legislators have diminished African-American and Latino voters’ power and separated them into districts based solely on their race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act,” said Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

“It’s well past time for the Legislature to fix these violations, and we appreciate the court’s rejection of the government’s effort to discriminate against voters based on race and ethnicity,” Riggs said.

Tuesday’s ruling validated the lines for Hurd’s 23rd District, which is likely welcome news for the incumbent. Redrawing the district could have tipped the balance in a race rated a Toss-Up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

The court found that the 23rd District is currently “a Latino opportunity district and there is no evidence of intentional discrimination/dilution.” 

But Hurd’s district could still shift if altering the lines of the 35th and the 27th causes a ripple effect in other districts.

“As you dismantle the districts, it’s possible you make changes to the 23rd,” said Michael Li, the senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.

Li said a key part of the ruling was that the court found there was intentional racial discrimination in the 2013 congressional map. That finding could factor into whether Texas is placed back under a pre-clearance process. Under that process, the state would need federal approval before changing voting laws.

Texas had been subject to pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which named specific states with histories of discrimination. But the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Section 5 violated the Constitution.

The plaintiffs in the redistricting case have argued that Texas should be placed back under the pre-clearance process under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. That section includes a “bail-in” provision that says jurisdictions that have intentionally discriminated would be subject to the pre-clearance process.

“This will be big test for whether Section 3 actually has real teeth or not,” Li said.

But before the pre-clearance issue is settled, Texas first needs to redraw its congressional map to correct the violations.

The state has until Friday to inform the court if and when the Legislature intends to redraw the map. If it opts not to take up redistricting, the court will move to impose a new plan, starting with a hearing on Sept. 5.

Li said an appeal would mean the maps would not be final until the Supreme Court rules on the issue, which could be in December or January at the earliest.

Doggett said in a statement that he is still planning to run for re-election in the 35th District.

“What Republicans did was not just wrong, it was unconstitutional,” the twelve-term congressman said. “Since the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say, this extended struggle is not yet over. Unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise, I plan to seek reelection in the district that I currently represent.”

Simone Pathe´ and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.