By MANNY FERNANDEZ
Published: August 28, 2012
HOUSTON — A federal court in Washington ruled on Tuesday that political maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in Texas discriminated against minority voters, a decision that black and Hispanic groups claimed as a victory and the state attorney general vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit found that a set of maps for Congressional, State House and State Senate districts drawn by the Legislature failed to comply with part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They denied granting so-called preclearance to the maps, because in some cases districts drawn to look like Hispanic ones on paper would actually perform to the benefit of candidates preferred by white voters.
The decision’s immediate impact was unclear. It appears unlikely to affect the November elections because those electoral maps were drawn as interim replacements by a federal court in San Antonio. The interim maps were not at issue before the judges in Washington.
Gov. Rick Perry signed the Legislature’s maps into law last summer. But the federal court in Washington refused to grant preclearance, prompting the San Antonio judicial panel to create the interim maps to allow this year’s elections to proceed. The federal judges in Washington presided over a trial in January and issued their decision on Tuesday.
The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, who is representing the state, said he would appeal the decision. “Today’s decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution,” Mr. Abbott said in a statement.
Michael Li, an election law lawyer in Dallas who runs a Web site following the case,Txredistricting.org, said that because the Washington court had no power to fix the maps — only to decide whether to grant or deny preclearance — the case now moves back to Texas, where the federal judges in San Antonio will most likely fix the problems identified by the Washington court. They also may let the Legislature try to redraw the maps.
The judges in Washington found that one largely Hispanic Congressional district in South Texas that includes Corpus Christi had its minority voting strength diluted when it was redrawn to a majority-Anglo district. In the 23rd Congressional District in West Texas, the judges ruled that drawers “consciously replaced many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of C.D. 23’s Anglo citizens,” reducing Hispanic voting power “without making it look like anything in C.D. 23 had changed.”
The judges found that the Congressional map as a whole was enacted with a “discriminatory purpose,” and they cited the concerns of black and Hispanic members of Congress who testified that they were excluded from the process of drafting the maps. In addition, several minority Congress members had the economic generators of their districts and their own district offices removed in the maps, though, as the judges pointed out, “no such surgery was performed on the districts of Anglo incumbents.”
Lawyers for Mr. Abbott argued that the maps were drawn to help Republicans maintain power but not to discriminate, and that drawers did not know where district offices were located.
State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who is the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, one of a number of black and Hispanic groups that sued the state, called Tuesday’s decision a proud moment for voting rights in Texas.
“I think it clearly is a representation of the obvious, of what we have been saying all this time,” Mr. Fischer said, “that the face of the state of Texas is changed by the day, yet our political lines and our political representation still represents the views of a very old and different Texas.”