The Supreme Court this morning threw out the interim Texas Congressional map drawn by a lower court, thrusting the Lone Star State redistricting process into turmoil once again.
The high court's unanimous, unsigned decision is a blow to Democrats, who stood to pick up a few House seats in 2012 if the lower court's maps were put into practice.
The high court ordered that even though the map passed by the state Legislature has not been granted preclearance, that does not "require a court to take up the state legislature's task."
A federal three-judge panel in San Antonio redrew the Congressional map for 2012 after it was clear the map passed by state lawmakers last year would head to a lengthy preclearance trial. But Republicans, including Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, claimed the San Antonio court overstepped its boundaries with its thorough redraw.
"The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders," Abbott said in a statement following the decision.
The Court agreed with Abbott and ruled quickly — less than two weeks after oral arguments — that the lower court did not have the right to overhaul the entire Congressional map in its redraw. Instead, the justices said the lower court should take its cues from the state plan, even though it has not been precleared yet, but fix only the certain legal problems with it.
"To avoid being compelled to make such otherwise standardless decisions, a district court should take guidance from the State's recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan," the justices wrote.
There are four new House seats at stake this year due to population growth in the Lone Star State. Either party could pick up a few of those new seats depending on how the Congressional lines are drawn.
Texas is one of nine states that require preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before its new Congressional maps can be enforced as law.
Abbott opted to sue the Justice Department for preclearance in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Closing arguments for that case are scheduled Feb. 3.
In wake of their major legal setback, Democrats attempted to paint the decision as a means to draw new lines that adhere to both the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
"Nothing in the court's ruling excuses Texas from abiding by the U.S. Voting Rights Act," Texas redistricting expert Matt Angle, a Democrat, said. "The state's plans are unlikely to survive the review under way in D.C., so we should expect that new maps will be ordered over the next several weeks."
In wake of the ruling, attorneys from both parties scrambled to determine the consequences. They cautioned any interpretations are merely speculative until the lower court makes a move.
But it's clear the high court's ruling puts the San Antonio federal court in a tight box — at least until the U.S. District Court rules on preclearance. The path to draw and implement the 36 House districts in Texas is unclear until that court rules.
Yet the court's ruling might have implications for other redistricting and voting rights cases, too, operatives speculated.
First of all, the ruling signals this Supreme Court has little appetite for court-drawn maps. Parties will consider this when deciding whether to appeal their future cases.
Secondly, the high court ruled that the preclearance must be determined before a lower court implements any new interim plan. This has implications for states stalled in the redistricting process and seeking preclearance in federal court.
The court also called out court-drawn minority coalition districts, or districts where there are large numbers of more than one race in order to create a majority-minority seat. The justices wrote the lower court "had no basis for" crafting such a district with its interim map.
And, finally, the court noted the "serious constitutional questions" raised by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That's a sign it could take on that issue in a similar case later this year. Election attorneys cite several cases related to the Voting Rights Act currently making their way through the appeals courts.
Also, Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with the ruling, but went beyond his colleagues to state that he believed Section 5 is unconstitutional.
Texas officials already moved their primary back to April 3. But given the Supreme Court's ruling and the ongoing preclearance trial, there's talk the primary will move to a later date.
One Texas Republican source speculated the primary could move back to late May with runoff elections 60 days later.