Sunday, September 2, 2012
Following an earlier ruling last week by a three-judge panel of the D.C. District denying Section 5 preclearance to Texas legislature's redistricting plans, a Western District of Texas panel ruled on Friday that the most recent court-drawn plans will remain in place for the upcoming elections.
The ruling means that the court-drawn plans will govern the upcoming elections--even though at least one of those plans, the congressional district plan, was based closely on the Texas legislature's original plan that was denied preclearance earlier in the week.
This can all seem confusing, so let's sort it out from the beginning. The Texas legislature redrew maps for its congressional, state senate, and state house seats in response to its ballooning and shifting population in the 2010 census and to maintain one-person-one-vote in its districts. But Texas was required to gain preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA before it implemented those plans. So it sought preclearance from a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (It could have alternatively sought preclearance from DOJ, but it didn't.)
While the Section 5 case was pending, plaintiffs challenged the plans in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, alleging that the plans violated Section 2 of the VRA. The Texas court, recognizing that the Section 5 case was pending but that the D.C. court had not yet ruled, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and redrew the maps. Texas appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court invalidated the maps, in Perry v. Perez.
The Texas court went back to the drawing board and came up with new court-drawn maps, more closely based on the Texas legislature's original maps. (The original maps were still pending Section 5 preclearance in the D.C. court.) Nobody challenged the newly redrawn maps by the Western District court--at least not yet.
Earlier last week, the D.C. District finally ruled that the Texas legislature's original redistricting maps did not merit preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA. The ruling didn't touch the most recent court-drawn maps by the Western District, however. Those maps seemed to stay in place. (Texas announced later last week that it would appeal the Section 5 ruling to the Supreme Court. That announcement doesn't affect the Western District's maps--at least until the Supreme Court rules.)
After the D.C. court ruling last week, the Western District set a status conference for Friday to sort it all out. According to the order, the court preliminarily assumed that its own most recent maps would govern the 2012 elections, but it offered parties an opportunity to argue otherwise. Only one plaintiff in the original Section 2 case argued that the most recent court-drawn maps shouldn't govern: the League of United Latin American Citizens argued that the court's congressional map was invalid, because it was based too closely on the Texas legislature's original congressional map, which failed preclearance earlier in the week.
The Western District rejected that argument and ruled from the bench that its own redrawn maps would govern the 2012 elections. It also asked the parties for proposals by December 1 on how to move forward.
Unless there are any surprise moves--and they'd have to be a real surprise, and real quick, given the timing--the latest court-drawn plans will govern the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, the Texas legislature's plans may go to the Supreme Court. But even if they do, the application of Section 5 will hardly be the most interesting issue related to the VRA before the Court. That's because the Court is almost certain to grant cert. to a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5. If so, and if the Court, as expected, overturns Section 5, the Texas legislature's original plans may go back into place--but only after the 2012 elections.