Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Judge leery of election map

Panel hears final arguments; decision pending

A federal judge Tuesday said she found it hard to believe the Texas Legislature's map designers adjusting lines to favor Republicans unknowingly sliced out a lawmaker's home, important business areas or other key chunks in some minority lawmakers' districts.

"I am very troubled by it," U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said.

She is a member of a three-judge federal panel convened Tuesday in Washington to hear closing arguments before deciding whether the Legislature's map for congressional, state House and state Senate districts violate the Voting Rights Act.

The judges didn't indicate Tuesday when they would make a decision on whether to clear the map for use. A history of voting discrimination in Texas means a new political map must have federal approval under the Voting Rights Act.

Collyer encouraged Adam Mortara, an attorney representing state officials who want to keep the Legislature's map in place, to make a stronger case on paper for the claim map drawers' innocently split voting precincts and carved off key areas of some districts.

Mortara said it's impossible to draw lines for the numerous districts without splitting precincts.

Lawyers representing the state of Texas said the maps were simply drawn to benefit Republicans — legal gerrymandering — and not to have any other effect such as infringing on the voting rights of Hispanics and blacks.

"Map drawers and the legislators had compliance with the Voting Rights Act at the forefront. It was one of their goals," said John Hughes, another attorney representing the state.

There's no evidence of a motive to racially discriminate, Hughes said.

But Department of Justice lawyers, as well as attorneys representing minority groups, contend the drawers of maps adopted by the Legislature intentionally set out to create districts that robbed minorities of the ability to elect the candidates of their choice.

"This is not a partisan issue. It's about keeping minorities in their place," Alison Riggs, an attorney representing NAACP interests in the case, said before the panel.

Filing to run in the Texas Primary is supposed to begin Friday, but it's still unclear whether elections will go forward April 3 as planned.

"Until you actually get a map that works, any filing deadline is effectively meaningless," said Texas Tech political science professor Craig Goodman. "The problem is it's hard to file if you don't know what districts you're going to run in."

Tuesday's closing arguments are the culmination of about two weeks of testimony. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sought approval for the Legislature's map from the three-judge panel.

The GOP-dominated Legislature drew a new voting map after the 2010 Census showed population gains in Texas, mostly from Hispanics. The state gained four congressional seats, pushing the number of congressional districts to 36.

Minorities and Democrats took claims of racial discrimination in the Legislature's map to a federal court in San Antonio, which issued its own interim map.

The Supreme Court threw out the map from the San Antonio court, ruling it didn't give enough deference to the Texas Legislature's map.

With the clock ticking, the San Antonio court is urging the state and attorneys representing minorities and Democrats to come to an agreement by Feb. 6 on a map at least for 2012 elections.

Otherwise, Texas primaries, already pushed back from March 6, might have to be held even later.

By Trish Choate, Texas regional reporter Trish Choate, 202-408-2709,

Source: Times Record News

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