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Government/Politics

Democrats take redistricting challenge to Texas Supreme Court

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Attorneys representing a group of Democratic state lawmakers faced off Wednesday with the state attorney general’s office in the latest partisan battle over redrawn political maps passed by the Texas Legislature in 2021.

The arguments before the Texas Supreme Court were part of a case filed against Gov. Greg Abbott by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, or MALC, that allege Texas Republicans violated the Texas Constitution when they redrew political boundaries after the 2020 U.S. Census.

Attorneys for MALC and what are collectively called the Gutierrez plaintiffs — state Sens. Roland Gutierrez and Sarah Eckhardt, House District 37 candidate Ruben Cortez, and the Tejano Democrats — alleged in state court that the Texas Legislature violated what is known as the “county line rule” when political maps were redrawn in 2021. That rule requires counties with sufficient populations to be kept whole during the process.

They argue the Legislature violated that rule when it passed House Bill 1, the lower chamber’s redistricting bill, because it split the Cameron County line twice when maps were redrawn. It did so by including districts that went in two different directions into two counties to create part of separate House districts, according to a court filing.

The arguments Wednesday centered on whether the courts are a proper venue for the debate, something the state argued against. In December, a three-judge panel denied a request by the attorney general’s office to dismiss the case based on that argument.

“This court has repeatedly recognized that redistricting is a uniquely legislative task,” said Lanora Pettit, an attorney with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office. Pettit said that a previous ruling by the court stated it could only intervene in “exigent circumstances” but the current lawsuit didn’t qualify.

“This is not such a circumstance,” she said. “Plaintiffs who lack standing seek an order that is a function of the [Texas] Constitution.”

Justice Jeff Boyd said the broad argument seemed “hard to swallow.”

“Challenging new maps on these grounds raises a very important constitutional issue and I hear the state arguing ‘Yeah. Well, so sorry. There is nobody that gets to raise that,” he said.

Later attorney Wallace Jefferson, a former Republican state supreme court chief justice, said that if the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue the state on the issue of redistricting, it would essentially mean that nobody could challenge perceived violations of the Texas Constitution.

“If these voters and these candidates lack standing, no one could ever sue to enforce mandatory provisions of the Texas Constitution,” he said.

The lawsuit in state court is in addition to a challenge MALC filed in federal court last year. That case in EL Paso is pending and alleges that the redrawn maps violate the U.S. Constitution “on the grounds that they impermissibly dilute the voting power of Latinos and Spanish speakers” among other allegations, according to the lawsuit.

In a statement Wednesday MALC reiterated its claim that the Legislature “manipulated electoral” maps.

“Specifically, the statehouse map reduces the number of majority Latino seats by 3 from 33 to 30 and decreases the total number of majority-minority districts from 40 to 34,” the statement reads. “Further, the two newly drawn congressional districts were both drawn with Anglo majorities – ignoring significant demographic changes across the state.”

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.