The legal fight over the shape of Texas political representation for the next decade won’t be decided until next year after a federal panel agreed Tuesday to delay a trial over new political maps.
The federal three-judge panel hearing the case pushed the start of the trial, which was originally scheduled for Sept. 28, following a flurry of disputes over discovery that left both the state and the various plaintiff groups questioning whether they’d have enough time to prepare to make their cases in a federal court in El Paso.
The court said it would announce a new trial at a later time.
The maps passed by the Legislature in 2021 have already gone into effect and are being used for the first time in this year’s elections, but the litigation could decide whether those maps need to be changed to ensure that voters of color have a fair say in choosing their representatives in elections for years to come.
The state faces a broad catalog of challenges to its four political maps, including its congressional and statehouse maps, that could affect a litany of districts. The legal claims, stemming from nearly a dozen consolidated lawsuits, include allegations of intentional discrimination, vote dilution and racial gerrymandering. The Republican-drawn maps largely serve to bolster the party’s dominance, giving white voters greater control of political districts throughout the state.
At issue in the delay were ongoing fights to compel Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general’s office and other Republican elected officials to turn over thousands of documents that the state has been fighting to keep concealed. With less than a month until the scheduled start of the trial, the state and the plaintiffs groups were also jostling over various depositions in which state lawmakers relied on asserting legislative privilege to avoid divulging information on how the maps were drafted.
Redistricting cases are complex, with plaintiffs carrying the burden of proving wrongdoing by the state. The release of the disputed documents, the plaintiffs argued, could reveal new facts that could require additional depositions.
“Were the September 28 trial setting to hold, the Court could rule in advance of the upcoming legislative session. This would have been a clear benefit to all parties. But a ruling on only partial evidence does justice for none,” some of the plaintiffs wrote in a joint advisory filed with the court last week.
But the delay is not without risk.
This is the joint lawsuit with multiple plaintiffs; the Justice Department lawsuit, which survived a motion to dismiss in June, is being heard separately. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit scored a couple of wins recently relating to documents that must be disclosed to them. Those rulings obviously weren’t the end of the dispute, and so we have delays. The risk mentioned is that a final ruling would not be made in time for the Lege to make any required adjustments to the maps for the 2024 election. Remember, unless the primaries get moved back, which would affect the Presidential races, we need maps by October or so, to accommodate filing season and any updates that county election officials need to make. That’s not a lot of time. We’ll see when the new trial date is scheduled, but keep that time frame in mind. Unless we want to wait until 2026 – which, as we know from previous decades’ experience, is hardly out of the norm – the clock is very much ticking.