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Supreme Court Leaves Texas in Tumult

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
The Supreme Court decision to grant a stay for Texas' court-drawn Congressional map has led to election chaos for Rep. Blake Farenthold and others in the state.

A Supreme Court decision pushed Lone Star State politics into turmoil last week, throwing the Texas Congressional map — and the 2012 elections — into chaos.

“I don’t know where I’m going to run,” freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) said in a phone interview today. “I don’t know where to file, what district I live in, or what district goes where.”

On Friday evening, the nation’s highest court granted Texas GOP officials’ request for a stay on a court-drawn map that benefited Democrats. The court’s future decision on the map will affect the boundaries of the Lone Star State’s 36 Congressional districts, a handful of which could be crucial in deciding control of the chamber next year.

Even Republicans privately conceded they were surprised the high court took up the redistricting case, which will determine whether a trio of federal judges in San Antonio had the authority to overhaul the state’s interim Congressional map last month. The court scheduled oral arguments for Jan. 9, but in the meantime, the timeline for next year’s elections — including the presidential and Senate races — is in a state of confusion.

“This has far-reaching effects up and down the ballot — presidential, U.S. Senate, Congressional, state legislative, you name it,” said Chris Perkins, a Texas redistricting expert and GOP strategist. “Virtually all Texas elections are going to be affected by this case.”

A federal court in San Antonio will hold a conference Tuesday to determine how to handle the scheduled Dec. 15 filing deadline. Texas insiders agreed the filing deadline, as well as the primary date, will likely have to move back.

There’s talk that the state could host one primary on March 6 for statewide contests and other unaffected races and then hold a primary for affected races in May. Or Texas officials could move all contests to a May 22 primary.

Either way, the political consequences are far-reaching under a split or delayed primary.

Texas strategists say turnout will lag in the Senate primary in March if the House primary is moved to a different date. In the presidential race, the primary is currently scheduled for March 6, known as “Super Tuesday,” when votes are likely to matter more than in May.

Even the political parties differed on how to proceed with accepting House candidate filings.

The Texas Democratic Party is continuing to accept candidate filings until the Dec. 15 deadline unless they hear otherwise from the courts, spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said. But the Republican Party of Texas instructed county GOP chairmen to “not accept applications for Texas House, Texas Senate or U.S. Congress.”

The Texas redistricting saga started this summer, when Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed off on an aggressive new Congressional map aimed to give House Republicans a few more seats. The state picked up four new House seats because of population increases, including a burgeoning Hispanic community.

The Voting Rights Act requires Texas to receive preclearance for its map through the District of Columbia’s District Court or through the Justice Department. In July, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) took the map straight to the courts, suing the Justice Department for preclearance. That trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 17.

At the same time, Democrats and minority-voting advocacy groups sued to overturn the map in a federal court in San Antonio. When the D.C. district court opted to begin trial over preclearance, the San Antonio court took note. In November, the three-judge federal panel drew an interim Congressional map that benefited Democrats.

That prompted Texas Republicans to ask the Supreme Court last month to grant a stay on the interim map while the preclearance trial continues. They argued the three-judge panel overreached by redrawing the map without a ruling from the federal district court.

The Supreme Court granted Abbott’s request on Friday — a decision hailed by Texas Republicans.

“We’re very pleased,” Abbott said in a phone interview. “We feel the maps that were drawn by the courts in San Antonio were inconsistent with what the law requires. We’re pleased the Supreme Court will get involved.”

But the scope of what the Supreme Court will decide is up in the air right now, according to Texas political veterans and redistricting attorneys.

“The court can deal with this in a number of ways and could send the case back to the San Antonio court with specific directions on what to look at,” said redistricting attorney Jeff Wice, a Democrat. “You’ve got an unprecedented set of factors that certainly open the door to uncertainty.”

Historically, the Supreme Court has ruled narrowly on redistricting cases. But sources not affiliated with the court say it’s feasible the justices could use this case as an opportunity to rule on greater enfranchisement issues, even Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Michael Li, a Texas attorney who follows the state’s redistricting closely, called the legal precedent “murky” for this situation.

“That’s an area where there isn’t a lot of case law,” Li said. “There really hasn’t been a case where the Supreme Court rejected court-drawn maps in a couple decades.”

Nonetheless, Republicans rejoiced at the court’s decision, despite the temporary chaos.

“It’s a good thing because I think the San Antonio court over-reached so much,” Farenthold said. “There was only a complaint about a few districts, and they ended up redrawing every single district.”

Democratic House hopefuls were also left scratching their heads over how to proceed. State Rep. Marc Veasey (D) had already collected $100,000 and secured endorsements from all over the new Fort Worth-area House seat he is seeking.

“I was off to such a fast start,” Veasey said. “Since the Supreme Court issued its stay, we’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode. I’m going to remain positive and try to keep a good outlook and just get ready for Jan. 9.”

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