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December 7th, 2021:

Justice Department sues Texas over redistricting maps

Add it to the queue.

The Department of Justice is suing Texas over its new redistricting maps, alleging that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and Black voters while redrawing the state’s political districts this year.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in El Paso, takes aim at Texas’ new maps for Congress and the state House of Representatives. The Biden administration alleges that several of the districts were drawn “with discriminatory intent” to increase the electoral power of the state’s white voters despite massive population growth among racial minorities.

“Our complaint today alleges that the redistricting plans approved by the Texas State Legislature and signed into law by the governor will deny Black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to participate in the voting process and to elect representatives of their choice, in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a news conference.

Texas’ new maps, redrawn this year to reflect the state’s population increases since 2010, are already facing seven legal challenges in state courts. Critics have assailed them as attacks on Texas’ minority voters, noting that the state’s GOP-led Legislature declined to add any new majority-minority districts even as people of color drove 95 percent of the state’s 4 million-person population growth. Hispanic Texans comprised roughly half of that total.

“Our investigation determined that Texas’ redistricting plans will dilute the increased minority voting strength that should have developed from these significant demographic shifts,” Gupta said.

She added that the new maps were adopted through a “rushed process” that allowed for “minimum” public participation. The department is asking the court to prevent any elections from taking place using the new maps; the state’s primaries are scheduled for March 1.

Politico adds some details.

The suit notes that Texas’ past redistricting maps have repeatedly been smacked down by courts over the last several decades. But [Attorney General Merrick] Garland acknowledged during the press conference that this case presents more challenges than past decades because the so-called preclearance requirement, which mandated that jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory election laws get changes approved by either the Department of Justice or a D.C.-based federal court, was gutted by a mid-2010s Supreme Court decision.

“There are two problems: One, it means that we don’t get a chance to look at these things before they go into effect, which is a very significant aspect of our tools, and instead requires that we challenge every case individually,” Garland said. “And second, it flips the burden of proof.”

[…]

The suit takes particular issue with the 23rd Congressional District — a sprawling West Texas seat now held by GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales — accusing Texas Republicans of intentionally eliminating its status as a district where Latinos could elect their candidate of choice.

More than 50 percent of the voting age population in the new 23rd District is Latino, but the Department of Justice claims — as it has in previous litigation against other iterations of this seat — that GOP mapmakers swapped out Latinos who vote regularly with low-propensity Latino voters.

The end result, the suit says, is “an effort to strengthen the voting power of Anglo citizens while preserving the superficial appearance of Latino control.”

The suit also noted the lack of a new Latino opportunity seat in Houston’s Harris County and accused the legislature of having “surgically excised minority communities from the core of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (DFW) by attaching them to heavily Anglo rural counties, some more than a hundred miles away.”

The suit also singles out the new 24th Congressional District, held by freshman GOP Rep. Beth Van Duyne. By reducing the district’s swath of northwest Dallas County, the mapmakers dropped the Latino citizen voting age population from 40 percent to 23 percent. The suit says the map again strengthens the Anglo voting bloc.

GOP mapmakers created three new deep blue seats — in Austin, Houston and Dallas — to accommodate a growing number of left-leaning voters and keep them from overwhelming the red-leaning districts surrounding them. None of those seats have a Latino-majority. Republicans will likely control at least two dozen of the state’s 38 seats under this new map.

In the Houston area, the suit notes that the new 38th Congressional District was drawn “to give Harris County’s shrinking Anglo population control of yet another Congressional seat” even though “most of that population growth occurred within the Latino community.” That seat leans heavily Republican, and the current frontrunner in the GOP primary, Wesley Hunt, is Black.

Garland also urged Congress to restore those preclearance requirements that were effectively stripped out of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, which was decided in 2013.

As noted before, there are multiple lawsuits that have already been filed, and with the exception of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, which raises different questions, have been combined into one action. Michael Li expects this lawsuit to be assigned to the same three-judge panel as the others as well. He also says this:

Not really much else to say here – if the Senate can ever get around to passing one of the voting rights bills that the House has sent them, it could make the plaintiffs’ case even stronger, but unless that happens it’s hard for me to have a lot of optimism, despite the glimmer that Michael provides. It’s barely possible that the panel could put the March primary on hold, but to say the least I don’t expect that. A copy of the lawsuit is here, and the Trib and the Texas Signal have more.

Filing update: A primary challenger for Judge Hidalgo

Been wondering for a long time if someone might take the plunge…

I should point out, before I get too far into this, that Judge Hidalgo already had a primary opponent, our friend the perennial candidate AR Hassan, whose name is given on the SOS Qualified Candidates page as (I kid you not) “Ahmad R. ‘Rob-Beto’ Hassan”. Please feel free to take a moment to cringe. When I said that Judge Hidalgo has a primary opponent, I meant a serious primary opponent.

No news story yet, but I’m sure that will change soon. Erica Davis is an HCDE Trustee (scroll down to Position 5, At Large), elected in 2020 and one of the top performers in the November election, per the precinct data. She has a website that does not currently state what office she’s running for but which promises that’s “coming soon”. Her Facebook page does not mention her new candidacy, at least as of Monday late afternoon.

To answer your question: No, she does not have to resign from HCDE to run for another office. The HCDE is not one of the county offices for which the state constitution requires resign-to-run. Remember Roy Morales? He was on the ballot for something else like four times during his six-year term on HCDE. As to why Erica Davis might run against Judge Hidalgo, I’m sure she’ll tell us when her website is fully operational. In the meantime, you can read my speculation from a year ago about why someone might do this very thing – I’d say item #3 may be on point.

What I do know at this time is that now I have another set of interviews I’ll need to do for the primary. I’m sure I’ll be asking Erica Davis for her reasons for her candidacy, as I would with anyone else in a similar position. With that said, and with all due respect, I’ll be supporting Judge Hidalgo for re-election. We’ll see who’s with me on that.

Here comes omicron

It was always just a matter of time.

Texas has identified its first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant, a strain flagged as potentially more infectious than any that has come before it, including the delta variant responsible for surges still happening across the country, state health officials said on Monday.

The variant was identified in Texas in a Harris County woman in her 40s, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services and county Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Many questions still surround omicron, even as it remains high on the radar of state and federal health officials.

While early indicators suggest the variant is very contagious, it’s still unknown whether it will infect people at a faster rate or cause more hospitalizations than the delta variant, which currently represents nearly all the active cases in Texas.

It could also take another month, experts say, to figure out how effective vaccines or natural immunity will be against the omicron variant.

Other unknowns include how sick it will make those infected and whether it will be milder or more aggressive than the delta variant.

Hidalgo said the woman in whom the variant was detected has no recent history of travel.

You can hear Dr. Peter Hotez talk about omicron and delta on CityCast Houston’s Monday podcast episode. I don’t have to tell you to get your shots and your booster, do I? There’s one way out of this, and that’s it.

UPDATE: Yeah, we detected it in the wastewater. A week ago. So, yeah.

A brief look at the winter storm litigation

This story is actually about the judge who will be presiding over winter storm cases, but it caught my eye for a reason that will be apparent.

Sylvia A. Matthews presided over more than 175 jury trials and 160 bench trials during her decade as a Harris County District Court judge. Lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants say she is smart, fair, well-prepared, hard-working, efficient and decisive.

Matthews will need all those qualities over the next several months as she oversees more than 150 highly complex civil lawsuits filed by victims seeking billions of dollars in damages as the result of last February’s winter storm, which was one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in Texas history.

The lawsuits filed across Texas include individuals suing for wrongful death, personal injury and property damages and companies complaining about breach of contracts, interruption of business and price-gouging.

Some of the largest power companies, such as the Houston utility CenterPoint Energy, the Chicago company Exelon and Vistra Energy of Irving, one of the state’s biggest generators and retail electricity providers.

While the lawsuits have been filed in more than a dozen Texas courts, the Texas Supreme Court has consolidated them into one docket, called multidistrict litigation.

The cases are consolidated for efficiency, allowing pretrial issues, such as production of evidence and admissibility of testimony, to be decided in a uniform matter. Once the pretrial issues are decided, the cases are usually sent back to the courts where the lawsuits were filed for trial.

For example, lawyers predict that the 200 lawsuits already filed in the Astroworld tragedy will also be consolidated into a single proceeding for pre-trial purposes.

[…]

The winter storm litigation is likely to take years to resolve, according to legal experts. In fact, the statute of limitations for more lawsuits does not expire for another year, meaning more cases may still be filed.

The stuff in between is about Judge Matthews, a Republican now serving as a visiting jurist following her electoral defeat in 2018. It’s fine, I’m glad she’s good at her job, but it was the stuff about the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel that I noticed. Here’s this thing I’d never heard of before October of this year, and now it’s turning up all over the place, including and not surprisingly in the AstroWorld cases. I feel like someone owes me a nice in-depth explainer about this body. How long has it been in existence, what are the rules that govern it, who serves and how do they get there, and is it just one of those things that it’s been a key player in such high profile and hot button matters as these cases plus SB8 or is it somehow a sign of the times? Oh, to be an assignment editor. Seriously, someone write me that story, I’d read the hell out of it.

Anyway. Litigation over the freeze and blackout and responsibility for the latter will no doubt go on for years, but hopefully it will help provide some answers. Lord knows, we’re not getting any from our state leaders. I’ll be keeping an eye out for further news.