The Texas State Capitol is seen late Jan. 18, in Austin.
Political experts are keeping a close eye on Texas because it will pick up four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives next year, thanks to a soaring Latino population. But civil rights groups and the U.S. Justice Department are signaling they may have some concerns about the redistricting process in Texas and whether it could put Latino voters at a disadvantage.
In a brewing conflict, Texas Republican leaders have decided to put the fate of the state's new redistricting plans in the hands of a special court in Washington D.C., instead of President Obama's Justice Department.
For the better part of a year, lawmakers in Texas worked to draw the boundaries for the state's four new seats in the U.S. House.
Kel Seliger led the special committee on redistricting in the Texas Senate.
"The whole point of the exercise is to have a process that is fair and in the end both a process and a product that is legal," says Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo. "We worked hard to meet those requirements and I think we did."
But advocacy groups that represent Latino voters say the Texas plan leaves them with fewer choices, not more.
"That is basically the bottom line on our legal claim, is that more districts should have been created in which Latinos had the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice," Nina Perales, a lawyer at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or Maldef, told reporters last week.
Maldef and other groups have moved to intervene in a court case that could help determine the makeup of the next Congress. Their goal is to throw out the redistricting plans and force Texas to draw new boundaries.
The bulk of the action is taking place in Washington D.C., before a special three-judge panel that hears disputes under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, filed the lawsuit to bypass a requirement that the state get advance approval from President Obama's Justice Department.
Experts point out it's the first time since the Lyndon Johnson administration that Democrats are in charge of the White House during a redistricting period. And that's making lawyers in Republican led states such as Texas and Alabama leery enough to use the option of going around the civil rights division at Justice.
Hans von Spakovsky, a Republican lawyer in Washington, says he approves of that strategy.
"I think that 's a good idea for them because quite frankly the administrative process allows the [Justice Department civil rights] division to do many things they can't do in a courtroom," things like relying on hearsay evidence or keeping the identities of some witnesses under wraps, von Spakovsky says.
But Gerry Hebert, a Democrat who often handles election law cases, says bypassing the Justice Department doesn't make any sense, since litigation can take a long time and cost a lot of money, Hebert says.
"And one would think in times of fiscal crisis like now states would be looking to save money not spend it," Hebert says.
States that bypass the Justice Department still have to contend with its arguments in a courtroom. On Monday, civil rights lawyers in the department will lay out their first legal response to the Texas redistricting maps, including, one source following the case says, some concerns about the changes Texas has made.
Under the law, the Justice Department will be trying to find out whether the change in the voting maps has a discriminatory purpose or has a retrogressive effect that would dilute the power of minority voters. All sides are due in court in Washington Wednesday for a hearing.
"The Texas maps... are Exhibit A for whether the Department of Justice is going to vigorously enforce the Voting Rights Act," says Gerry Hebert, one of the election experts following the redistricting process behind the scenes. "The congressional map tremendously undervalues and dilutes the voting strength of racial and ethnic minorities in Texas."
Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, says it's a misconception to think that Latino voters in the state uniformly cast their ballots with Democratic candidates. He says the redistricting plans were considered carefully, and that because Latinos are spread out across Texas, it's more difficult to create a district that's a majority-minority one. Moreover, Munisteri says, the numbers are on his side.
"Even though our state is 38 and a half percent Hispanic, only 20 percent of the people who are eligible to vote are Hispanic, and it would be expected after this congressional district map is approved, if it is approved, that there be 7 districts which Hispanics would occupy, which is almost exactly 20 percent," he adds.
There's not a lot of time for the court in Washington to make up its mind. The first primaries in Texas start in March and some deadlines are coming up fairly soon.