D.C. Court Considers Texas Redistricting Case

The special Washington, D.C., court charged with "pre-clearing" the redistricting map in Texas — where four new congressional seats are at stake — hears closing arguments Tuesday. Meanwhile, Texas Republicans and minority groups are working on a deal.

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The bitter fight over new legislative districts in Texas played out in a federal courthouse here in Washington today. Lawyers for the Justice Department say Republicans in the State House discriminated against Latino voters and shortchanged their ability to elect more minorities to Congress. Texas says it was just playing politics, protecting incumbent lawmakers, not violating the Federal Voting Rights Act. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The special three-judge court that will decide whether Texas ran afoul of the landmark voting rights law started the day with the question on everyone's mind. Referring to news reports that the state's GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott had reached out to try to settle the case, Judge Rosemary Collyer asked: What is happening in Texas? The judge clearly did not get the answer she wanted to hear - no deal, at least not yet.

But Democratic Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, who leads the state's Mexican-American legislative caucus, says he's negotiating from a position of strength.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE TREY MARTINEZ FISCHER: We believe there's a clear case of discriminatory purpose and effect in those maps, and we will not accept a resolution that doesn't acknowledge that.

JOHNSON: To the Obama Justice Department, the issue isn't a close call. Latinos are responsible for about 90 percent of the population growth in Texas, winning the state four new seats in the U.S. House. But Justice says Texas actually went backwards when it comes to protecting Hispanic voting rights. Gerald Hebert is a lawyer working with minority groups to fight state plan.

GERALD HEBERT: Funny that that becomes a dispute, because it's such a simple matter of mathematics.

JOHNSON: And Justice says the math goes like this: Under the existing plans, minority candidates were favored to win 10 districts, but under the state's new plan, despite the population growth, they'd still be favored to win only 10, not more. To make its case, the Justice Department relied on email messages between Republican aides who helped draw the maps, messages that Hebert says were something of a smoking gun.

HEBERT: They were intent on drawing districts that sounded like they were going to maintain the Latino percentage, say, in a district. But what they were really going to do is substitute low turnout minority Latino populations for other higher turnout Latino populations.

JOHNSON: Lawyers for the state of Texas didn't want to talk on tape, but in the courtroom, they said they weren't playing with the numbers. The Justice Department's simple math, they said, failed to consider an important fact: Many Latinos in the state are not U.S. citizens and not able to vote. Texas said the Justice Department was to blame for providing confusing instructions for how to draw the maps, and they argued that Republicans in the state did not have race and ethnicity on their minds when they created the new districts.

Instead, they were motivated by politics to protect incumbents, and that's all right under federal voting rights law. But the judges didn't seem to buying it. At one point, Judge Collyer said of a witness for the State: I sort of got lost in the cul-de-sac of evasion. And Judge Beryl Howell asked Texas how it was possible that districts for minority lawmakers, but no Anglos, had been redrawn in such a way that the boundaries no longer included their former office headquarters.

A court in San Antonio hearing another element of the voting rights case has given both sides until February 6th to make a deal. That's less than a week away. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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