Barely underway, Texas redistricting draws its first lawsuit challenging Legislature’s authority to redraw legislative maps

The east rotunda of the Texas Capitol on April 12, 2021.

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The first volley in what is expected to be a fierce war over Texas redistricting kicked off Wednesday in the form of a federal lawsuit filed by two Democratic state senators who argue that state lawmakers cannot legally redraw the state’s legislative maps this fall.

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State Sens. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin are asking a federal district court in Austin to take over the work of drawing up new political maps for the Texas House and Senate to reflect the state’s growth in the last decade. Joined in their lawsuit by the Tejano Democrats, a political organization, the senators argue the Legislature cannot constitutionally carry out that work in a special legislative session.

The Texas Constitution states the Legislature “shall” redraw the state’s legislative maps “at its first regular session after the publication” of each decennial census. But significant holdups in finalizing the 2020 census delayed the release of the detailed population numbers needed to redraw those districts for several months — far past the end of the regular legislative session in May.

Having a court redraw legislative maps could help Democratic chances for a more favorable map compared with what the Legislature’s Republican majority might draw up in a bid to hold power for the next decade in a state that is demographically moving away from the party.

Congressional and state House and Senate districts need to be reconfigured before the 2022 elections to account for the state’s explosive growth in the last 10 years. The census’ August data delivery showed people of color accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth of nearly 4 million residents since 2010. The suit does not challenge the Legislature’s ability to draw a new Congressional district map in special session. Lawmakers must rework that map to add the two additional districts Texas earned because of its fast growth.

Because the Legislature lacks the authority to redraw the legislative districts now, the lawsuit argues, that obligation falls to the court to ensure the maps won’t violate the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote” principle for the 2022 elections. The Legislature’s next regular legislative session won’t take place until January 2023.

State legislative districts are meant to be close to equal in population, but the state’s booming — and uneven — growth in the last decade means that population counts in the districts are significantly out of balance.

Lawmakers are beginning their work on the state’s new maps this month, with a series of committee hearings set for next week. Gov. Greg Abbott, who is named as the lead defendant in the lawsuit, is expected to call them back for a third special session to sign off on redrawn maps. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The redistricting fight was expected to move into the federal courts regardless. The politically fraught exercise has regularly developed into legal fights over lawmakers’ treatment of voters of color.

Decade after decade, the state has faced allegations — and subsequent federal court rulings — that lawmakers discriminated against those voters, intentionally working to undermine the power of their votes, in drawing up political maps.

During the last round of redistricting after the 2010 census, federal courts found that Texas lawmakers discriminated against Hispanic and Black voters in particular.

The Legislature’s Republican majority was reprimanded by federal judges, as recently as 2017 in protracted litigation, for intentionally diluting the power of Black and Hispanic votes; the Legislature’s maps after the 2010 census flunked both the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act and were redrawn amid litigation in federal court.

“For nearly 20 years Texas Republicans have manipulated the redistricting process to disenfranchise minority voters and Democrats to maintain a tenuous hold on the state legislature, but that all ends now,” Eckhardt said in a statement. “We will continue to demand that they start following both the intent and the letter of the law. Party’s over.”

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