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Supreme Court Maintains District Maps in N.C., Texas

Voter dilution, racial and partisan gerrymandering at issue in court actions

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on Thursday, April 12, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on Thursday, April 12, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court ruled Monday to keep the current congressional maps in Texas and North Carolina, in separate cases that dealt with voter dilution and racial and partisan gerrymandering.

In the Texas case, a sharply divided court overturned a lower court ruling that found intentional voter dilution in the 27th District and racial gerrymandering in the 35th District. The 27th District is currently vacant, after Republican Blake Farenthold resigned in April, while the 35th is held by Democrat Lloyd Doggett.

The state’s electoral map had been challenged in court since it was first drawn in 2011. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Monday’s ruling a “huge win” for the Lone Star State and said Texans once again “have the power to govern themselves.”

“The court rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts, and rejected the misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters,” Paxton said in a statement.

And in the North Carolina case, the court vacated a lower court ruling that ordered a redrawing of the state’s congressional map, finding it a partisan gerrymander.

In a one-line order, the justices sent the case back to lower court to reconsider in light of the court’s decision in another partisan gerrymandering case last week that focused on proving whether voters had the legal right to bring the case.

“While it’s unfortunate that the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear this case right away, we are optimistic that the lower court will recognize, like they did in January, that North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering is so egregious that it is unconstitutional and that our clients are the appropriate parties to be raising such claims,” Allison Riggs, a senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which brought the case, said Monday.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the Texas case is the latest in a long saga over the state’s congressional and statehouse maps. A lower court’s unanimous decision said the districts violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, and ordered the state to quickly redraw the map. The Supreme Court in September put that on hold as they considered whether to hear Texas’ appeal.

The case has a tangled procedural history and the lower court had different reasons for its rulings on the 35th and 27th districts.

The Texas Legislature adopted a congressional map in 2011, but a federal district court blocked its use and adopted an interim redistricting plan for the 2012 elections. The following year, the Texas Legislature passed bills making the interim, court-ordered congressional map permanent.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the lower court “committed a fundamental legal error” because the panel shifted the burden of proof to the Texas Legislature to show that, in adopting the court-ordered map in 2013, the state lawmakers had “cured” the “taint” of discriminatory intent from the 2011 map.

The lower court had used that reasoning to rule against the 35th District, finding in part that Texas enacted the 2013 plan “as part of a litigation strategy” to insulate that map from challenges.

Alito wrote that the evidence in the case “is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination.” He wrote that the Texas Legislature using the previous court-ordered map to avoid litigation is “entirely reasonable and certainly legitimate.”

“Litigating districting cases is expensive and time consuming, and until the districts to be used in the next election are firmly established, a degree of uncertainty clouds the electoral process,” Alito wrote. “Wishing to minimize these effects is understandable and proper.”

The Supreme Court also reversed the lower court decision that found Latinos had been deprived of an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice in the 27th District.

Alito wrote that the lower court took the wrong approach when it evaluated whether it was possible to create such a Latino opportunity district in that part of the state, which is around Corpus Christi.

Joining Alito in the majority were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. The case also dealt with Texas’ statehouse map.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent, joined by the three other justices in the court’s liberal wing, that said the decision “selectively parses through the facts” and comes at a serious cost to democracy.

“It means that, 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,” Sotomayor wrote.

“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,” she wrote.

Joining the dissent were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.

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