Judges press lawyers on Texas voting maps

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2012 

WASHINGTON — In often lively exchanges with the lawyers, the three-judge panel overseeing the Texas redistricting case repeatedly questioned the state's position during closing arguments Tuesday and signaled a quick decision in the Voting Rights Act case.

At the same time, the state and the litigants circled each other on possible settlement discussions in a related San Antonio case.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who is presiding, began the Washington, D.C., court case Tuesday by asking about the status of San Antonio negotiations. Gerry Hebert, attorney for state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said he's optimistic about a settlement on the Senate map -- in which Davis' District 10 is the only district in dispute -- but lawyers representing the minority groups who have challenged the Texas House and congressional maps said there were no discussions.

The three-judge San Antonio panel -- responding to a Supreme Court ruling rejecting an interim map drawn by the panel -- has asked the parties to report whether agreement has been reached on maps for the 2012 elections by Monday, the same day the D.C. court has set as a deadline for final briefs in the case.

"We'll make a decision as quickly as we can," said U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith, one of the D.C. judges. The Texas primary date has already been pushed back from March 6 to April 3 and could be delayed further, depending on what the judges decide, or if there is a settlement.

The D.C. court must determine whether Texas officials drew the maps with the intent of reducing minority participation and whether the maps actually reduced the influence of Latinos and African-Americans from previous elections. Hispanics were the major reason for Texas' population surge, which led to four new congressional districts for the state.

But the judges questioned the way the state drew the lines.

"Every action has been explained as an effort to protect Republicans," Collyer said during the state's presentation. Texas outside counsel Adam Mortara said that there was a "partisan goal" to re-elect incumbents but not to undermine the Voting Rights Act.

And District Judge Beryl Howell said it is "remarkable" that Texas officials did not start with a numerical standard for the voting strength of minorities in the existing maps before drawing new lines.

Luis Vera, attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, told the court that the Latino and black populations have been "cracked, packed and stacked" in districts that diminished their power.

Afterward, he told the Star-Telegram, "I think the state's going to get nailed."

Texas outside counsel John Hughes maintained that the maps were drawn for partisan, not racial reasons.

Hebert criticized Texas lawmakers in charge of map drawing, especially Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, for testifying that he could not remember that Davis told him that she wanted to preserve the Hispanic and black communities in her district, only that she wanted the district within Tarrant County.

That prompted Collyer to say "he didn't remember who elected Sen. Davis, either."

Hebert said that in 2008, Davis was elected with 99 percent of the black vote, 85 percent of the Hispanic vote and 25 percent of the Anglo vote.

The coalition vote is at the heart of Davis' case for protection under the Voting Rights Act. But the state, Hughes said, contends that it's a majority-Republican district and that the election of a Democrat did not mean that Democrats should get protection under the act.

Hebert made a splash by suggesting that the hearing had revealed "smoking guns" for discrimination: an e-mail between Texas map drawers who wanted to have the committee report about Davis' carved-up district ready to go before lawmakers had even met, and Congressional District 26 -- known as "the lightning bolt" for the way it jags through the north Fort Worth Latino community.

The e-mail was from David Hanna, a Texas Legislative Council attorney advising state officials, to top GOP staffers, waving them off printing the report before the Senate hearing because it would appear to undermine the Voting Rights Act.

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