In the Courthouse: Cases Affecting Congress Work Way Through System

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., faces a corruption trial in Newark, which could affect some Senate votes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., faces a corruption trial in Newark, which could affect some Senate votes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 28, 2017 at 5:04am

Several high-profile cases affecting Congress are making their way through the federal court system, including how congressional districts are drawn in Texas and Maryland, as well as a criminal trial affecting a sitting U.S. senator. 

On Friday, Texas asked the Supreme Court to stop a court-ordered redrawing of the state’s congressional districts ahead of the 2018 election, or risk “chaos” in the state’s election timeline for a second time this decade.

Earlier in August, a three-judge panel of federal judges ruled that current map needs to be changed, saying it intentionally diluted votes in Congressional District 27 and showed signs of racial gerrymandering in Congressional District 36. Those districts are held by Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold and Democrat Lloyd Doggett, respectively.

The court gave the Lone Star State three days to either order a special session or show up at a Sept. 5 hearing on how to redraw the districts quickly. The legal battle over the state’s congressional map has gone on for years in federal courts.

Texas told the Supreme Court in an emergency application that the state will ultimately prevail in an appeal of that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, but says it needs quick Supreme Court action. Congressional districts must be determined by October 1 to avoid disruption of deadlines for the November 2018 elections.

The Supreme Court “will inevitably face a choice between allowing the 2018 elections to proceed either under maps that the district court adopted in 2012, that the Legislature endorsed in 2013, and that have governed the past three elections, or under a new remedial map adopted without this Court’s review (or reviewed only on a remarkably truncated schedule that will still throw the Texas election deadlines into chaos for the second time this decade),” Texas officials wrote.

“The far better course is to intervene now and make clear that the 2018 elections will be the fourth to occur under the 2012 maps and stay the proceedings in the district court,” Texas officials wrote.

The justices, who are currently on a summer break, could act on the request any time. The case is Gov. Greg Abbott, et al., v. Shannon Perez, et al.

That wasn’t the only court action in Texas last week. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Wednesday blocked the state from implementing its revised voter identification law, after finding it discriminated against Hispanics and African-Americans under the Voting Rights Act. Lone Star State officials said they would appeal the order.

In Maryland, meanwhile, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on Thursday declined to stop use of the state’s Congressional map, which is being challenged as a partisan gerrymander.

The three-judge panel also put the case on hold until the conclusion of a Supreme Court case addressing similar issues set to be argued later this year.

Menendez Trial in Newark

With opening statements in the corruption trial of New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez set for Sept. 6, the Democrat has asked the court to alter the trial schedule so he can be present for some Senate votes in Washington, the Associated Press reported

Menendez made the request Thursday in a filing that mentions potential votes in September on raising the federal debt limit and approving a spending deal to avoid a government shutdown.

“As the recent vote on whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act demonstrated, the Senate is divided by razor-thin margins on consequential legislation, making Senator Menendez’s absence from any particular vote potentially determinative,” his motion stated.

If a defendant chooses not to attend his or her trial, “the jury may draw whatever inference it wants, including that the defendant did not care enough about his or her case,” the motion continued.

U.S. District Judge William Walls is expected to rule soon on the motion. Walls previously rejected Menendez’s request to delay the start of the trial until a Senate recess in October.

“I want the jury to understand that I fervently believe in my innocence,” Menendez said in an interview with AP. “If there is a moment where there is a critical vote, I have the constitutional right to go ahead and cast a vote and not be at the trial. I also have a constitutional right to be at the trial. So I will decide which of those constitutional rights I will exercise at any given moment.”