DAVID GREENE, host: Political observers have their eyes on Texas these days, and not just because the governor is a leading contender for president. Thanks to a soaring Latino population, the state will pick up four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives next year. But civil rights groups and the Justice Department are signaling they 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 now decided to put the fate of the state's plan in the hands of a special court in Washington, D.C., rather than in the hands of President Obama's Justice Department. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON: 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.
State Senator KEL SELIGER: The whole point of the exercise is to have a process that's fair and in the end, both a process and a product that is legal.
JOHNSON: Seliger is a Republican from Amarillo.
SELIGER: We worked hard to meet those requirements, and I think we did.
JOHNSON: But advocacy groups that represent Latino voters say the Texas plan leaves them with fewer choices, not more. Nina Perales is a lawyer at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or Maldef.
NINA PERALES: 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.
JJOHNSON: 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 is a Republican lawyer in Washington, who says he approves of that strategy.
HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: I think that's a good idea for them because quite frankly, the administrative process allows the division to do many things they can't do in a courtroom.
JOHNSON: Things like relying on hearsay evidence, or keeping the identities of some witnesses under wraps. But Gerry Hebert, a Democrat who often handles election-law cases, says bypassing the Justice Department doesn't make any sense. Litigation can take a long time and cost a lot of money, Hebert says.
GERRY HEBERT: And one would think that in times of fiscal crisis - like now - states would be looking to save money, not spend it.
JOHNSON: And states that bypass the Justice Department still have to contend with its arguments in a courtroom. Later today, civil rights lawyers in the department will lay out their first legal response to the Texas redistricting maps. Sources tell NPR those lawyers will raise some questions about the changes. Gerry Hebert has been following behind the scenes.
HEBERT: The Texas maps are Exhibit A for whether the Department of Justice is going to vigorously enforce the Voting Rights Act. The congressional map tremendously undervalues and dilutes the voting strength of racial and ethnic minorities in Texas.
JOHNSON: Steve Munisteri is chairman of the Texas Republican Party. He says the numbers are on his side.
STEVE MUNISTERI: 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'd be seven districts which Hispanics would occupy, which is almost exactly 20 percent.
JOHNSON: There's not a lot of time for the court to make up its mind. The first primaries in Texas start in March, and some deadlines are coming up fairly soon. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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