The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today over the controversial Texas redistricting map, setting the stage for what could be the most high-profile voting rights ruling in decades.
“It’s totally unpredictable what the court would do,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), a redistricting expert. “We don’t know if this will be decided on narrow grounds or on sweeping grounds.”
Redistricting and election law experts argue there’s a wide range of ruling options for the high court — anything from implementing an existing map to using the Perry v. Perez case as a vehicle to gut a pivotal part of the Voting Rights Act.
Either way, the stakes are incredibly high for this cycle and for the future of election law. At the very least, the Supreme Court will indirectly decide the 2012 Texas Congressional map, which includes several competitive seats. But the high court could also change election law by ruling on a key provision of the landmark 1965 civil rights law — an unlikely circumstance, election experts say, but a possibility nonetheless.
“[The] Voting Rights Act is not the core issue,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “But how the court decides who has the authority — which branch of the court or the legislature — it’s going to impact how Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] is interpreted.”
The Lone Star State legal saga started last summer, when Texas lawmakers passed an aggressive new Congressional map that aimed to put a few more seats in the GOP’s column. The state was granted four new House seats in 2012 because of explosive population growth, mostly in the Hispanic community.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of about nine states that requires preclearance before making changes to its voting laws. As a result, Texas had to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before the map became law.
In July, Texas officials sued the Justice Department in federal court to get approval for the new map. That trial in the District Court for the District of Columbia is scheduled to begin next week, but legal experts say it’s unlikely the court will preclear that map.
Democrats and Hispanic activist groups sued to overturn the Texas map in a federal court in San Antonio under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In an attempt to speed up the legal proceedings, a three-judge panel in San Antonio drew an interim map, even though the federal court had not ruled yet on preclearance for the Texas map already signed into law. They drew an interim map much more favorable to Democrats.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.