Months ago, new Texas congressional maps for the 2018 election seemed like a pie-in-the-sky idea. The federal court looking at a lawsuit against the state’s 2011 map had sat on a ruling for years, and the case had gone unresolved for several election cycles.
But thanks to a down-to-the-wire decision last month, attorneys representing plaintiffs in this case say, there’s hope for new districts in time for the next election.
Just last year, Gerry Hebert, one of the plaintiff attorneys, said he couldn’t figure out why the U.S. District Court hearing the case was taking so long to reach a decision.
“We really have left a lot of the lawyers scratching their heads about what the court is actually doing – if anything – to get this case moving,” he said at the time.
Part of Hebert’s frustration was that the state had been holding elections using an interim map that still had a few of the same problems he saw in the original 2011 map.
Cut to last month, when the court finally weighed in. Two of the three federal judges on the panel sided with Hebert and others who claimed state lawmakers racially discriminated when they drew up the congressional districts.
Now, Hebert says he’s hopeful there won’t be yet another election with the old maps.
“The timing of the court’s decision is absolutely giving us an opportunity to get a new congressional redistricting plan for the 2018 election,” he says.
There are still quite a few steps between that decision and new maps, though. First up: a court hearing at the end of the month. Michael Li with the Brennan Center for Justice, another member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, says it should answer some of the "what happens next" kind of questions.
“We need to know when the parties are supposed to file briefs, when they are supposed to propose maps. Is the Legislature going to be given a chance? Is it not?” he says. “All of that is going to have to be decided.”
Li says at some point, both sides might also have to settle whether the 2013 interim map the state is currently using should be thrown out. Li, like Hebert, argues the interim map is not totally different than the 2011 map that the court struck down.
The court might also decide that Texas needs to clear all election-related laws and decisions with the federal government or a federal court from here on out. And of course, Texas can appeal any order that comes down.
Li says this journey is far from over.
“It’s always been a bumpy road for Texas in redistricting and this cycle is no different," he says, "and I am sure there will be twists and turns that we don’t see."
There has already been one unforeseen twist in the case since the ruling.
The state recently filed a motion asking the trial court to give it permission to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is unusual. Typically such cases are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
So, Li, Hebert and others will have to make the case for why the decision on the 2011 map should not be overturned.
In the meantime, things are moving forward, which both Hebert and Li say is a nice change of pace.
The hearing for remedies following the three-judge panel's decision will be held April 27 in San Antonio.