Reports: Supreme Court Justices appeared unsure at Texas redistricting hearing

Texas Redistricting

The US Supreme Court concluded a hearing on Texas redistricting maps this afternoon, leaving the timing of this year’s primaries and the political maps that Texas will be allowed to use still very much up in the air.

Mark Sherman, a legal affairs writer with the Associated Press, reported the following:

The justices appeared unsure Monday at arguments over Texas’ electoral districts about whether primary elections could take place in early April or whether legal wrangling between the GOP-dominated state government and minority groups would take longer to resolve.

Several justices lamented the lack of an easy answer in a case being considered on an expedited schedule because of the impending Texas primary, set for April 3 after a judge delayed the vote for a month.

The justices discussed moving the primary date back further to give the courts handling different aspects of the case more time.

“Why can’t this all be pushed back, and wouldn’t that eliminate a lot of the problems we are grappling with in this case?” Justice Samuel Alito asked.

The court agreed last month to hear an emergency challenge by Texas Republicans to court-drawn maps that had been set for the 2012 election cycle. Last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved maps for the state’s congressional and legislative districts that Democrats and minority groups argued disenfranchised minority voters.
Because of a history of racial discrimination in voting, Texas is among 16 states required to get federal approval of certain election changes under the Voting Rights Act. Republican leaders asked a federal court in Washington, D.C., to quickly approve the Legislature’s maps. The court refused, insisting on holding a trial set for later this month. That prompted federal judges in San Antonio to draw temporary maps for 2012 that were widely seen as favoring Democrats.

At today’s hearing, the Texas attorney general’s office was tasked with convincing the nine justices that the state should get to use the maps approved by the Legislature last year because no federal court has rejected them. A ruling in their favor could compromise a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts say.

Cameron Joseph with The Hill’s Ballot Box blog wrote:

The justices were clearly unhappy with their options, not wanting to put in place either Republican state legislators’ redistricting map or a state-drawn “bipartisan” map that drew in parts from the GOP map. They seemed to be looking for the solution that would have the least legal and political impact.

“How do you decide between two wrong choices?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts at one point.

Michael Li, a Dallas lawyer who has been blogging about the redistricting saga for months and attended today’s hearing, posted on Twitter a prediction that the Justices will wait for the D.C. trial to complete before issuing a ruling.

“Talking to other people for reaction. Seems to be same. Everyone’s sense is that SCOTUS will punt,” Li tweeted.

If that’s the case, the Supreme Court likely wouldn’t issue a ruling until the end of the month at the earliest, forcing the Texas primary to be moved further later in the year.

Last month, Texas Republicans and Democrats agreed to move the primary from March 6 to April 3 in light of the legal logam. That agreement included plans to hold a second round of candidate filing later this month. That plan may have been too optimistic. An April 3 primary assumes the second round of candidate filling will be completed by Feb. 1, a tough task if the Supreme Court takes weeks to rule instead of days.

The outcome of several Tarrant County races may pivot on how the Supreme Court rules.

Along with the lawyers from his office handling the case on behalf of the state, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was at today’s hearing. Democrats in attendance included state Rep. Marc Veasey and state Sen. Wendy Davis, both of Fort Worth.

-Aman Batheja

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