AUSTIN — As federal lawsuits over new political maps pile up, some Texas Democrats are focusing on a pair of state court cases, arguing this year’s GOP-led redistricting effort violated the Texas Constitution.
The Legislature’s GOP mapmakers in October passed new lines that cement Republicans’ grip on power for the next decade but blunt the voting strength of nonwhite voters who fueled Texas’ population surge.
In two cases heard Wednesday and Thursday, a group of mostly Democratic, Hispanic lawmakers from both chambers challenged the legality of when and how Republicans drew the boundaries.
“All we’re asking is for Republicans, who claim to be constitutionalists, to start acting like it, and follow the plain meaning and reading of the Constitution,” said Roland Gutierrez, one of two Democratic state senators who are suing Texas.
Focusing on the timing are Gutierrez and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, who sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. Also at issue are rules for keeping counties intact when drawing Texas House districts.
Similar to a suit they filed in federal court before redrawing began, the senators’ attorneys argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.
That makes the newly drawn state House and state Senate plans invalid, argued the legal team for Gutierrez and Eckhardt, of San Antonio and Austin, respectively.
The senators’ lawyers pointed to a provision in the state Constitution that requires the redistricting process to start in the first regular session after the decennial Census has been published, asking the court to block the new plans from being used.
State lawyers argued the provision does not prohibit apportionment at other times, and warned that blocking the map will disrupt the 2022 election process that is already in motion.
“The Legislature … is perfectly free to redistrict whenever it wants,” Will Thompson, the attorney general’s deputy chief for special litigation, said at the Dec. 15 hearing in district court in Travis County.
All parties face a tight timeline for the March primaries. Overseas mail-in ballots are set to go out Jan. 15, and candidate filing ended Dec. 13.
But the court fights are not uncharted territory. The senators’ attorney, Wallace B. Jefferson, pointed out that for decades, every Texas redistricting plan has been either changed or tossed out by a federal court after being found in violation of the U.S. Constitution or the federal Voting Rights Act.
Texas argues “chaos will ensue if the court were to enjoin the maps, but the sky will not fall if that’s what the court decides,” said Jefferson, former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice and Republican from San Antonio.
The consolidated cases have been assigned a panel of three district court judges, with Democrat Karin Crump presiding, alongside Republicans Emily Miskel and Ken Wise.
Splitting Cameron County
The senators’ legal team also argued the new state House map violated the “county line rule” of the Texas Constitution, which requires that counties with sufficient population be kept intact in drawing Texas House districts.
The second challenge, mounted by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House, made a similar case that the rule was broken, arguing it was designed to ensure people have local representation.
Both complaints focus on the redrawing of Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley.
As lawmakers this fall debated the new House lines late into the night, they narrowly adopted a major change in South Texas. House District 37 was redrawn from a seat President Joe Biden won by 17 percentage points, to a seat the president won by only two points over former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
That amendment, developed by Kingsville Republican Rep. J.M. Lozano, was denounced by some Valley lawmakers. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, called the change a “disingenuous, last-minute attempt to do a grab.”
The plaintiffs’ legal team argued the county line rule requires that two districts be wholly contained within Cameron County. Yet Lozano’s tweaks give Cameron County just one wholly contained district, with two that connect to adjoining counties.
The state’s lawyers argued the new boundaries do not dilute votes in Cameron County, and that Cameron got the number of districts it was constitutionally entitled to. The plaintiffs’ attorney rejected that interpretation of the rules.
“There is no doubt that to whatever extent Cameron County voters are a cohesive group … they get to elect the candidates of their choice,” said Thompson, one of the state’s lawyers.
District 37 Democratic candidate Ruben Cortez Jr. joined the senators’ suit, along with political organization Tejano Democrats. The new version of the district was joined with adjacent Willacy County.
“This Republican redistricting scheme is robbing the voice of Cameron County voters,” Cortez, also a member of the Texas State Board of Education, said in a news release.
The caucus’ complaint asked the court to block the Texas House map from being used in upcoming elections and allow for the creation of alternative boundaries. Both sides discussed a full trial beginning Jan. 10.
It’s unclear, if the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs on the county line rule, whether they would delay Texas House primary elections just for South Texas, or the entire state. The plaintiffs’ legal team asked the court to delay the primary to May 24.
Thompson, the state lawyer, said he expects the 2023 Legislature to have to revisit the maps.
In a separate federal suit, MALC has argued the redrawn congressional, Texas House and State Board of Education maps are intentionally racially discriminatory and dilute Latino voting strength, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Department of Justice has joined the federal court fight, suing to block Texas’ gerrymandered congressional and state House maps. Several civil and voting rights groups, as well as individual voters, are among the plaintiffs in the consolidated federal redistricting cases.
Court challengers say the redrawn congressional, legislative and State Board of Education maps do not reflect the major growth of the Hispanic community, which made up nearly half of the state’s population gain since 2020. People of color accounted for 95% of the state’s population boom over the last decade, with much of the growth concentrated in cities and suburban areas, census data show.
In the plan for state House elections, the number of majority-white seats increased from 83 to 89, among eligible voters. The number of majority-Hispanic districts grew from 33 to 30, and the number of majority-Black districts dropped from seven to six. Asian voters remain without majority control in any district.
The decennial process following a U.S. Census typically leads to lawsuits in Texas, with the courts largely siding with Republicans in recent years. Lawmakers can draw maps in a way that benefits their party’s political future as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race.
This year, Republican lawmakers have a clearer path toward using the lines they want, as Texas is no longer required to get federal approval on new political maps.
The new maps are generally expected to withstand lawsuits, but battles over aspects of the boundaries could last several years.