WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court engaged in lively and sometimes divisive oral arguments Monday over Texas redistricting as justices argued with attorneys for the state and minority groups — and with one another — over how to resolve the state's congressional, Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives lines under the federal Voting Rights Act in time for this year's elections.
The case already has roiled the Texas election process, with Democrats and Republicans agreeing to delay the state's primary from March 6 to April 3. Several Supreme Court justices suggested Monday that the date might have to slip even more, to late June, to give the three court panels involved in the process time to resolve it.
Hanging in the balance are four new congressional seats, which Texas gained after the 2010 census because of largely Hispanic population growth.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Los Angeles-based civil rights group, said some of those seats should be drawn as minority opportunity districts that are Democratic-leaning, while Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Monday after the oral arguments that "it's perfectly reasonable to draw the lines" for the emerging number of Hispanic Republicans.
At issue are the districts the Texas Legislature drew after the 2010 census and whether they're viable under the Voting Rights Act. That law protects the voting rights of minorities in nine Southern states with histories of discrimination.
Two lower-court federal judicial panels — in Washington and San Antonio — are involved. The Supreme Court weighed in after the state of Texas asked for an emergency stay of a U.S. District San Antonio three-judge panel's imposition of an interim map for 2012, designed after the Washington judges failed to approve — or "pre-clear" — the maps under the Voting Rights Act in time for Texas' filing deadlines.
The arguments Monday largely turned on the way the San Antonio judges drew the lines and on some Supreme Court justices' discomfort with allowing a map — even for only one election cycle — to proceed without approval.
"How do we decide?" Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. asked.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the only Hispanic on the court, jumped in the discussion early, telling the lawyer for the Lone Star State, "You can't draw new maps until they've been pre-cleared." She also asked what the real "drop-dead" date was to set a primary date — and, told that June 26 was the last presidential primary, suggested that date as the latest for the Texas primary elections.
After the argument, Texas state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, stood outside on the Supreme Court steps and said, "I feel I'm here to defend voting rights."
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, whose district was divided under the Texas Legislature map and who's part of the legal challenge to the state, also attended the arguments. "I think the judges asked good questions," she said afterward. "The most intriguing part is whether we'll be waiting for the D.C. court before we get the district lines."
Longtime redistricting watcher Matt Angle, the director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic Party group, said he got a sense from the justices that they didn't want to proceed with the interim map but would tell the San Antonio court to wait for the approved maps to be put in place for the rest of the decade.
The Washington three-judge federal panel has scheduled a trial on pre-clearance to start Jan. 17, which is expected to conclude Feb. 3. If the Supreme Court opts to wait for that panel's decision, there could be further delays if the judges say some districts must be redrawn, a task that falls to the San Antonio panel.
"It is judicial activism at its worst for judges to draw redistricting maps of their own choosing despite no finding of wrongdoing by the state of Texas," Abbott said. "The court-drawn maps, which give no deference to Texas' duly enacted legislative plans, cannot be allowed to stand."
"The state of Texas should be acknowledging and protecting the voting rights of the 4.2 million new Texans that contributed to four new seats in Congress, not engaging in political gamesmanship in order to dilute their voting power," said Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, the chairman of Texas' Mexican American Legislative Caucus, who also attended the hearing.
There were a number of U.S. lawmakers from Texas and Texas state legislators in the ornate Supreme Court hearing room, including U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston; Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; and Tarrant County lawmakers Davis and Veasey.
The case is called Perry v. Perez, for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and plaintiff Shannon Perez.
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