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The Supreme Court tackled Texas’ redistricting this afternoon as parties presented their oral arguments in the high-profile voting rights case.
The justices did not appear to reach consensus on the case, which centers on whether a federal court in Texas overstepped its authority by drawing an interim Congressional map for 2012.
But many justices agreed that timing was of the utmost importance, suggesting through their questions to attorneys that the Texas primary could be delayed from April 3 if necessary.
“We’re pleased with the questions that came from the bench,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. “The court seemed to have serious concerns about the lower court’s decision. ... The Supreme Court also understood the need for speed in this case.”
In more than an hour of spirited exchanges, the justices grilled attorneys and the deputy solicitor general on the intricacies of Texas redistricting and the Voting Rights Act. There are four new House seats at stake on the Lone Star State’s 2012 map, plus several more competitive districts depending on how the new boundaries are drawn.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of nine states that require approval from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before changing election laws, including the map. Lone Star State officials are battling the Justice Department to get pre-clearance in D.C.’s district court in a trial scheduled to begin next week.
Last fall, a federal court in San Antonio issued an interim map even though the pre-clearance trial had not started yet. Texas officials argued that this was out of the San Antonio court’s purview and successfully appealed for a stay from the Supreme Court.
The unique timing of the simultaneous trials proved to be a point of contention in the Supreme Court today. The attorney for the appellees, Jose Garza, suggested the high court could put off the map implementation until the other federal court issued its pre-clearance ruling next month.
The dual trials also put the justices in a tough spot, Chief Justice John Roberts argued.
“You cannot assume that the legislature’s plan should be treated as if it were pre-cleared,” Roberts said. “The district court in Texas cannot assume or presume what the district court here in D.C. is going to do. But on the other hand, it can’t presume it the other way. ... So how do we decide between those two — you have two wrong choices. How do we end up?”
Most of the justices did not express an interest in taking on the constitutionality of Section 5 in their decision, including Roberts, confirming with Garza that it was outside the scope of the trial.
“It’s great that Chief Justice Roberts said this case would not reach the constitutionality of Section 5. Some feared that would happen,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) told Roll Call after the session. “If anything is to yield, it’s the election date.”
Only Justice Antonin Scalia expressed reservations about this, calling the government “absolutist” in its approach to Section 5 pre-clearance.
“It seems to me the government takes an absolutist approach to the proposition that you cannot use an un-pre-cleared plan for any purpose,” Scalia said. “What would you do if the district court in Washington and the district court in Texas, neither one of them acts in time, and it’s too late? It’s too late to have any primaries anymore? What would happen?”
Additional House Democrats attended the trial, including Texas Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Rubén Hinojosa. Afterward, outside under the first snowfall of the year, the three Democrats cried foul on their home state’s redistricting practices.
“The state of Texas has for decades refused to accept the benefit of their growing minority population,” Jackson Lee said. “When it comes to the distribution of the bounty of democracy, we are the stepchildren of Texas.”