A trial date has been set for the redistricting lawsuits, but strangely enough I can't tell what it actually is. There's a bunch of motions and hearings going on, so read it and see which date seems the most likely.
The federal court gave lawyers for the state until Friday to propose an order on how county election officials should proceed in drawing new precinct lines, electing precinct chairs and issuing voter registration cards.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the counties are required to prepare for the election using the plan that was in place in 2002 until the U.S. Justice Department rules on whether the Legislature's plan legally protects minority voting rights. But state law requires election administrators to prepare as if the new plan is lawful.
U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham told the state's lawyers the court may want to have the election administrators continue to organize under the 2002 plan until the Justice Department or the court rules on the Legislature's plan.
"One approach may be to say we have a legal plan, and we're going forward to try the legality of the proposed plan," Higginbotham said. "Until we get (the Justice Department's) preclearance, we have a legal plan in place."
Andy Taylor, an outside counsel representing Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, said the Justice Department has until Dec. 23 to rule on the Texas congressional redistricting plan.
Higginbotham said the court can try the case as if Justice had approved the plan and then make its own ruling immediately after the Justice Department acts. However, many of the redistricting lawyers believe the Justice ruling will occur before the December trial.
The judges also granted a request from attorney Anthony Griffin to hold a hearing Dec. 8 on a motion to throw out the Legislature's plan with a summary judgment. Griffin represents Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, both African-American members of Congress.
Minority groups say the Legislature's plan dilutes the voting strength of minority voters. Some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the GI Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens. The GI Forum is represented by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Paul Smith, a lawyer representing Democratic plaintiffs, noted for the court that he is arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in early December on whether partisan redistricting should be restricted by law. An outcome in that case could directly impact Texas because the Legislature redrew the state's congressional district boundaries only to give Republican candidates an advantage in the elections.
"I don't know that there is any way we can deal with the cloud on the horizon as to partisanship in redistricting," Higginbotham said.
Smith told Higginbotham that if the court ignores the Supreme Court hearings, it runs the risk of being overturned if the nation's high court rules against partisan redistricting in March or April.
"We do see a danger that a new map will take effect and then be ruled illegal three months later," Smith said.