Political News

Supreme Court Upholds Texas Voting Maps That Were Called Discriminatory

Posted June 25, 2018 3:18 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday largely upheld an array of congressional and state legislative districts in Texas, reversing trial court rulings that said the districts violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against voters on the basis of race.

The vote was 5-4, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the trial court had “committed a fundamental legal error” by requiring state officials to justify their use of voting maps that had been largely drawn by the trial court itself.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion represented a dark day for voting rights.

The Constitution and the Voting Rights Act “secure for all voters in our country, regardless of race, the right to equal participation in our political processes,” she wrote. “Those guarantees mean little, however, if courts do not remain vigilant in curbing states’ efforts to undermine the ability of minority voters to meaningfully exercise that right.”

“The court today does great damage to that right of equal opportunity,” she wrote. “Not because it denies the existence of that right, but because it refuses its enforcement.”

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in San Antonio had ruled that a congressional district including Corpus Christi denied Hispanic voters “their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.” The court rejected a second congressional district stretching from San Antonio to Austin, saying that race had been the primary factor in drawing it. In a separate decision, the court found similar flaws in several state legislative districts.

The Supreme Court reversed almost every part of those rulings, though it did hold that a state House district in Tarrant County was an impermissible racial gerrymander.

There was an odd wrinkle in the case: The San Antonio court itself had for the most part endorsed the contested maps in 2012, after the Supreme Court rejected earlier ones and told the court to try again. The 2012 maps, the panel later said, had been considered in haste in advance of pending elections. In 2013, the Texas Legislature decided not to draw new maps and instead mostly adopted the one drawn by the San Antonio court.

After three election cycles using the interim maps, the court ruled that they were flawed. “Although this court had ‘approved’ the maps for use as interim maps, given the severe time constraints it was operating under at the time of their adoption,” the court said, that approval was “not based on a full examination of the record or the governing law” and was “subject to revision.”

The court concluded that Texas’ adoption of the interim maps was part of “a litigation strategy designed to insulate the 2011 or 2013 plans from further challenge, regardless of their legal infirmities.”

Alito disagreed. “There is nothing to suggest that the Legislature proceeded in bad faith — or even that it acted unreasonably — in pursuing this strategy,” he wrote.

Much of the dispute between the two sides in Monday’s decision concerned whether the case was properly before the justices at all.

The San Antonio court had not issued an injunction compelling the state to do anything, Sotomayor wrote. Instead, it instructed Texas officials to promptly advise it about whether they would try to draw new maps. That meant, she said, that there was no lower-court decision for the Supreme Court to review.

But Alito wrote that the trial court’s action was effectively an injunction and that the Supreme Court therefore had jurisdiction to hear the state’s appeal.

“The short time given the Legislature to respond is strong evidence that the three-judge court did not intend to allow the elections to go ahead under the plans it had just condemned,” he wrote. “The Legislature was not in session, so in order to take up the task of redistricting, the governor would have been required to convene a special session — which is no small matter.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the majority opinion in the two consolidated cases, Abbott v. Perez, No. 17-586, and Abbott v. Perez, No. 17-626.

In dissent, Sotomayor wrote that the majority had gone badly astray.

“The court today goes out of its way to permit the State of Texas to use maps that the three-judge district court unanimously found were adopted for the purpose of preserving the racial discrimination that tainted its previous maps,” she wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.

“This disregard of both precedent and fact comes at serious costs to our democracy,” Sotomayor wrote. “It means that, after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas — despite constituting a majority of the population within the state — will continue to be underrepresented in the political process.”