On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a long-running Texas redistricting case. The dispute goes back to 2011, when Republicans in the state legislature drew Congressional and state legislative districts in a way designed to favor GOP candidates, and to move as many Democrats as possible into a few other districts.
Multiple courts have weighed in on the maps and required the legislature to draw replacement plans when the originals were found to intentionally discriminate against Latino and African-American voters.
Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law in Houston and an expert in constitutional law, says the Supreme Court will address both whether the maps drawn by the legislature intentionally discriminated against members of minority groups, and whether the maps had the effect of discriminating, based on the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
Rhodes says courts look at what the legislature’s stated intentions were as they drew the maps, as well as the maps themselves – whether districts have strange shapes, for example.
“There’s a very difficult line-drawing process when you’re dealing with race in redistricting,” Rhodes says. “Sometimes you have to keep minority groups together to ensure that they can elect the candidate of their choice. On the other hand, you can’t place minority groups into districts to try to ‘crack’ them – keep them from being able to elect the candidate of their choice, or ‘pack’ them – so that they are not able to influence other districts.”
One of the two Congressional districts at issue is TX-35, currently occupied by Democrat Lloyd Doggett. The Doggett district has been called “the salamander,” for its long, twisty shape. It stretches from Austin, past San Antonio and toward the Rio Grande Valley. Rhodes says shape alone doesn’t make a district unconstitutional.
“But the shape is a very important factor,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll look at, well, you’re keeping communities of interest together. But of course, that’s not the case in Doggett’s district at all… The concern there is that you’re drawing this district specifically to try to ensure that this district has enough minorities in it, but not necessarily minorities that share the same kind of interest.”
Rhodes says one indication that the Supreme Court may be favorably disposed toward Texas’ existing district maps is that the court granted a stay by a vote of 5-4 after a lower court invalidated the maps. This meant the state could continue using the current maps for the 2018 election cycle. Rhodes thinks the resolution of the case will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote, and could narrow the ruling of the lower courts while still disallowing some elements of Texas’ disputed maps.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.