WASHINGTON — The state of Texas faced off with the Justice Department on Wednesday before a three-judge panel in a federal court hearing to determine the legality of the state's redistricting maps under the Voting Rights Act.
The presiding judge signaled, though, that there wouldn't be a rush to decide Texas' request to approve its newly drawn congressional and state legislative district lines quickly.
Another judicial panel in San Antonio, moving along parallel lines, is expected by Friday to delay the Nov. 12 start of candidate filing deadlines for the 2012 elections.
The deadline for court action has become so pressing that U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, presiding in the Washington courtroom, took time at the end of arguments to ask about the Texas case.
"The Western District of Texas is well ahead of us," Collyer said, and went on to suggest that a speedy decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia therefore wasn't as important. However, she said of the upcoming filing period: "I understand there is a major problem here."
Texas attorneys said Nov. 18 was a looming unofficial deadline for the courts because ballots must be printed and the election infrastructure must be ready for candidates.
The three judges in San Antonio — who are reviewing another section of the voting rights law — are expected after a court hearing Thursday to move the start of the filing period back by two weeks. If there's no immediate ruling by the Washington-based court to approve the state's maps, called "pre-clearing," under a section of the Voting Rights Act, the San Antonio panel is likely to use interim maps to determine district lines for candidates to run in.
In the Washington-based case, judges heard arguments from the state, the Justice Department and so-called interveners representing minority groups and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat.
Texas Deputy Attorney General David Schenck asked the court to OK the maps the state Legislature approved for new district lines. They're are drawn every 10 years after the census, as in states around the country, for the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and U.S. Congress. Schenck argued that the lines were drawn along political, not racial, lines.
The Voting Rights Act, he said, "is an obviously ambiguous statute."
The Justice Department has challenged the state maps for the Texas House and U.S. Congress, saying they split districts of minorities and put them in white non-Hispanic districts where their influence is diminished.
"They were pulling out people based on race," Justice Department attorney Tim Mellett charged.
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