Redistricting settlement deal looking unlikely

Late last week we heard about the possibility of a settlement agreement in the San Antonio redistricting case that would allow for the creation of interim maps in time to keep the April 3 primary date. The court gave this Friday as a drop dead date for getting that done. As of today, it’s looking like that’s not going to happen.

Deal or no deal?

There were rumors floating around all weekend that there could be a deal struck as early as today, but with all parties heading to DC to catch closing arguments in the preclearance hearing tomorrow, Jan. 31, that seems unlikely. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus told the Chronicle this morning that a deal is not imminent, even though they are all working towards some kind of agreement.

MALC (and particularly chair Rep. Trez Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio) and MALDEF are clearly most interested in creating the largest number possible of Hispanic opportunity districts. However, that could clash severely with both the interests of the other plaintiffs (many of whom are looking for more Democratic opportunity seats) and the historic coalition between African-American and Hispanic groups. Throughout this process, LULAC and the NAACP have been very much on the same page, and have not always been in complete agreement with MALC and MALDEF.

It would not be too surprising if MALDEF backed something closer to the legislature’s maps than the other plaintiffs would be comfortable with: After all, they were fine with a map that would split Travis County four ways and draw Congressman Lloyd Doggett into a Democratic primary with San Antonio’s Rep. Juan Castro.


The time crunch means the plaintiffs can dangle the equal representation terms of Section Two of the Voting Rights Act over the assembled heads of Attorney General Greg Abbott’s team. However, the DC District Court is expected to rule this week on whether the legislature’s maps violate the preclearance terms of Section Five of the VRA. There are undoubtedly voices in the room suggesting that the plaintiffs would be in a much stronger negotiating position – and that the state would have little legal wiggle room – if they just wait a couple more days.

Most importantly, as one source close to the negotiations put it, all the parties should be more concerned about ensuring true representation for all Texans that holding on to the arbitrary April 3 primary date.

ADDENDUM: Just got an email from LULAC attorney Luis Roberto Vera, Jr. who confirmed that his clients (who are still pushing for coalition districts) are still pushing to wait for the DC ruling, and that was the stated position of all plaintiffs to the San Antonio panel before this weekend. “As to negotiations,” he wrote, “they have totally broken down as of now. I am sure they will resume but I doubt an agreement if at all by this Monday so I don’t expect an April 3rd election.”

The Statesman reports that the AG has been trying to find a wedge in the plaintiffs’ unity.

Representatives for other plaintiff groups also didn’t want to speak publicly because of the delicate nature of the ongoing negotiations. But there has been some chatter among the groups that lawyers for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, two of the main plaintiffs driving the litigation, have been talking to the state without other groups.

Though he didn’t name any groups in particular, Vera said some of the state’s lawyers were offering some plaintiffs’ lawyers deals that would benefit Latino groups but might be seen as detrimental to African American plaintiffs.

Vera said a major obstacle is that the state isn’t involving all parties in the negotiations. Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, which is among the plaintiffs, said the state was mainly negotiating with MALDEF and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

Bledsoe said unanimous agreement among the nine isn’t required for the court to accept a deal. He said he believes that there is a “reasonable chance” the state could work out a deal with two or three of the groups but that the odds of getting total consensus are longer.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said his organization had been in touch with lawyers from Abbott’s office and gave them a strict set of parameters that would need to be met before they could agree to anything.

The Express News adds on.

Martinez Fischer said he thought the attorney general’s office was trying to work with as many plaintiffs groups as possible.

“Their intention is to try and work something out,” a stance he called “encouraging.”

But thus far, he said, MALC hasn’t been satisfied with what the state has offered. He declined to offer specifics.

Even if an agreement is reached, it could still be challenged.

An attorney for U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, argued Friday before the three-judge panel in San Antonio that the attorney general’s office doesn’t have the authority to remake maps approved by the Legislature and that any maps that were redrawn would also need to be approved, or “precleared,” by the Justice Department.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott “would be agreeing to something that the Legislature did, so it would become new state policy,” attorney Trey Trainor said. “Well, the state doesn’t have the ability to implement change of voting policy without preclearance.”

Texas must get approval for new maps from the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act because of the state’s history of discrimination.

Vera thinks that the plaintiffs should wait on the D.C. panel to rule rather than settle with Abbott’s office.

“There was so much evidence of racial discrimination,” he said. “Texas is going to get nailed, and nailed hard.”

If that really is the case, then there’s little incentive for the plaintiffs to settle. The primary date was more of an issue for Republicans, who want to have a say in their Presidential race and whose financial exposure for the state conventions is greater. And the previous talk about settlements, which sounded very favorable from a Democratic perspective, have apparently ruffled some feathers on that side of the aisle. Michael Li quotes from a post by RPT Chair Steve Munisteri, whose backside is clearly seeking some concealment:

It is important to note, that the talks between the Democratic and Republican parties deal solely with the deadlines and scheduling of the primary election, not with the boundaries of state legislative or Congressional districts. Only the Attorney General’s office’s attorneys are involved in those discussions. Thus, the email chains that have gone out accusing the Republican Party of Texas of trying to save a convention deposit in exchange for district lines, are blatantly false.

Emphasis mine. Translation: Don’t blame me if the pooch gets screwed.

Meanwhile, closing arguments were made in the DC preclearance trial, and from the sound of it the plaintiffs have good reason to be hopeful.

The three-judge panel frequently interrupted the state’s closing presentation on Tuesday, probed some of its most basic positions and questioned its interpretation of some evidence.

Lawyers for Texas argued throughout the trial that the GOP-controlled Legislature created oddly shaped districts and used gerrymandering techniques to protect Republican incumbents–not to discriminate against racial minorities. Political gerrymandering is legal, if not pretty, they said.

Judge Rosemary Collyer questioned whether politics could excuse the fracturing of minority communities, who fueled 89 percent of Texas’ population growth in the last decade and helped the state gain four new seats in Congress.

“It’s really hard to explain that,” she said, “other than on the basis of reducing the effectiveness of the minority vote, whether black or Latino.”

She pointed to the Legislature’s plans for congressional seats in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. District boundaries carve up much of the urban center–largely minority and Democratic–and disperses it into GOP-friendly districts in the suburbs.

Judge Beryl Howell said the state’s position treats minority populations as “collateral damage,” and Judge Thomas Griffith asked whether law required the Legislature to take the racial impact of its plans into consideration, even if the primary motive was political.

The state’s attorneys, who ended up spending much of their final statement answering questions, stuck to their position.

That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s often a sign of how the judges are thinking. If my reading is correct, that would be one reason why the state was interested in settling. By the same token, of course, that would be a disincentive for the plaintiffs to cut a deal. At this point, I’d say we’re waiting for the DC court to rule before anything else happens. We’ll know soon enough, though whether it’s soon enough to keep an April primary is question #1 and highly dependent on how soon we know. Campos has more.

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