Texas' 2021 Political Maps Won't Need Federal Oversight, Court Rules

Jul 24, 2019

A U.S. district court has ruled Texas doesn't need federal oversight of its 2021 redistricting efforts.

Wednesday's decision is part of a larger lawsuit from voters who challenged the state’s 2011 political maps. Courts have found Texas officials intentionally discriminated against racial minorities when they drew those maps and ordered parts of the maps to be redrawn.

Because the maps were redrawn in 2013, though, the U.S. District Court in San Antonio denied a request from plaintiffs to require the next round of redistricting in Texas to be supervised, or put under “preclearance.”

“The Court concludes that ordering preclearance on the current record would be inappropriate,” the judges wrote, “given the recent guidance from the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit. It is time for this round of litigation to close.”

The case was a test of a little-known provision in the Voting Rights Act, sweeping legislation passed during the civil rights movement. The provision could require any state, county or city found to have intentionally discriminated against voters to be put under federal preclearance. That means the jurisdiction would have to clear any political maps or voting or election laws with either the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court.

Although the court ultimately decided not to order preclearance, also known as a “bail-in,” judges said there were grounds for it.

“The Court has found violations of the Fourteenth Amendment with regard to the 2011 plans, and concludes that these findings are sufficient to trigger bail-in as a potential remedy,” the ruling said.

Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling a "win."

“The plaintiffs’ requests for bail-in were based on plans that were adopted by the Legislature in 2011, never used in any state election, and repealed more than six years ago," he said in a statement.

The plaintiffs had argued federal preclearance was necessary to prevent Texas lawmakers from enacting discriminatory maps in 2021.

“This was a big test case,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. “I think people were watching it very closely to see what the court would do. But I don’t think it was a particularly huge surprise that the court didn’t go where the plaintiffs wanted it to go.”

He said the court agreed with plaintiffs on a lot of points, but it ultimately decided to “err on the side of caution,” instead of setting up another ruling that would have to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even without federal oversight, the court said, Texas still must follow the law.

“Texas must still comply with the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the VRA in the upcoming redistricting cycle, and undoubtedly its plans will be subject to judicial scrutiny,” the ruling said.

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF – part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs – said even though they weren’t successful in their request, they were able to reverse “many discriminatory boundaries in districts” in the 2011 maps.

She said the legal challenge also put state lawmakers on notice ahead of 2021 redistricting.

“[The] decision, even though it didn’t put Texas back under federal supervision for its redistricting, does sternly warn Texas that it cannot discriminate against minority voters or anybody else in its upcoming redistricting plans,” Perales said.

This post has been updated.