Redistricting in Texas is like grabbing a tar baby. Once you pick it up, it’s very difficult to put down. And it sticks on everyone’s hands for years.
No matter. Republican Gov. Rick Perry, acting at the behest of Republican Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, has called a special session on redistricting. They want the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature to pass the legislative and congressional district maps that were drawn by a three-judge federal court in San Antonio for the 2012 elections.
Abbott, who wants to run for governor, apparently thinks that if the legislature adopts the court’s maps as its own, that would make appeals of the legislature’s 2011-drawn maps moot.
His argument is that if the legislature’s lines match the court’s lines, game over –– court-drawn maps would be unassailable.
“These maps already have the approval from the federal judges overseeing this litigation,” Abbott wrote in a March 8 letter to House Speaker Joe Straus and the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Both are Republicans.
“Enacting the interim plans into law would confirm the legislature’s intent for a redistricting plan that fully comports with the law and will insulate the State’s redistricting plans from further legal challenge,” Abbott argued hopefully.
And so the governor, who decides the subject matter for special sessions, decreed the lawmakers “will consider … legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate, and United States House of Representatives.”
But legislative experts say there is ample precedent to show that “consider” actually means that and not “rubber-stamp.” As far as the House is concerned, the subject is “redistricting.”
Redistricting hearings being conducted around the state by House and Senate committees certainly indicate that the committee chairs think they have the power and the duty to at least go through the motions of considering other options.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, the Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the judges themselves didn’t consider their interim maps as the last word.
“The court clearly stated, ‘This interim plan is not a final ruling on the merits of any claims asserted by the plaintiffs,’ ” Martinez Fischer said.
So the legislature can approve whatever redistricting map its members choose. If the governor doesn’t like the outcome, he can veto it and call them back for another special session. Or more.
That said, unless the U.S. Supreme Court throws out Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which it is considering doing, this is almost certainly headed for court or to the Justice Department — or both.
Section 5 requires Texas and several other mostly Southern states to “pre-clear” all electoral changes before they can take effect, either with the Justice Department or with a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C.
Civil rights lawyers at a May 29 hearing before three judges in San Antonio warned that ramming the interim maps through the special session without enough attention to minority concerns is sure to bring lawsuits –– that could go on for years.
Veteran Texas political journalist Dave McNeely can be reached at email@example.com