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Federal Court Rules Three Texas Congressional Districts Illegally Drawn

A federal panel ruled Friday that three of Texas's Congressional districts, including the 35th, shown here, were illegally drawn by the state's Republicans. Screengrab by NPR/Google Maps hide caption

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Screengrab by NPR/Google Maps

A federal panel ruled Friday that three of Texas's Congressional districts, including the 35th, shown here, were illegally drawn by the state's Republicans.

Screengrab by NPR/Google Maps

A panel of federal judges ruled on Friday that three of Texas' congressional districts are illegal, violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The panel found that Republicans had used race as a motivating factor in redistricting.

Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia wrote the court's decision, which comes after a protracted and complex legal battle that began when the new districts were drawn in 2011, following the last census.

"The political motive does not excuse or negate that use of race; rather, the use of race is ultimately problematic for precisely that reason — because of their political motive, they intentionally drew a district based on race in a location where such use of race was not justified by a compelling state interest," says the ruling.

Politically motivated redistricting is legal, but redistricting with an intent to reduce the influence of minority voters — either by "packing" those voters into a district, or "cracking" them among multiple districts — is not.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which cleared the way for Texas to activate its controversial voter ID law and implement its redistricting maps without getting federal approval first. That's when a number of groups brought challenges to Texas Republicans' redistricting plans.

Texas will now consider whether to appeal the federal court's decision to the Supreme Court.

If the decision holds, the three congressional districts will likely need to be redrawn, causing a ripple effect on the state's other districts.

The decision could have far-reaching consequences for Texas politics and elections. Nina Perales is vice president of litigation for MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was counsel for Latino challengers to the redistricting plan.

Perales explains that not only does the court's decision lay the groundwork for changes to the state's current redistricting plan, but it may also be a step toward Texas being ordered back under federal supervision of its elections, as a remedy for intentional discrimination in its redistricting plan.

This federal court's decision "hopefully will allow the court to put Texas back under federal supervision because it's clear now after the warnings in Texas voter I.D. and Texas redistricting that Texas needs to be under federal supervision for its voting changes," says Perales.

Two of the three districts found to be illegal are held by Republicans; the third, Texas's 35th district, is held by Democrat Lloyd Doggett. As the Austin American-Statesman explains, the panel said that District 35:

"was improperly drawn with race as the predominant factor to minimize the number of Democrat districts and to attempt to unseat Doggett by boosting the Hispanic population, making it more likely that voters would choose a Latino candidate... By drawing Doggett's district with a majority Hispanic population extending into San Antonio, the Republican-controlled Legislature was able to "create the facade of complying" with the Voting Rights Act while eliminating an existing Democratic district, the panel ruled."

Judge Jerry Smith wrote a sharp dissent, with harsh words for the Justice Department. "The DoJ wholly failed, but not for lack of trying. There was, and is, no smoking gun in this record, nor has the United States shown that the State hid or failed to disclose one," he wrote.

"It was obvious, from the start, that the DoJ attorneys viewed state officials and the legislative majority and their staffs as a bunch of backwoods hayseed bigots who bemoan the abolition of the poll tax and pine for the days of literacy tests and lynchings," Smith added. "And the DoJ lawyers saw themselves as an expeditionary landing party arriving here, just in time, to rescue the state from oppression, obviously presuming that plaintiffs' counsel were not up to the task. The Department of Justice moreover views Texas redistricting litigation as the potential grand prize and lusts for the day when it can reimpose preclearance."

Whether or not Texas appeals to the Supreme Court, time is already running short. For candidates planning on running in 2018, deadlines to file for the Texas primaries aren't far away.