The last possible obstacle to a March primary, and the first redistricting lawsuit to get a merits hearing.
A federal district judge in El Paso on Tuesday will preside over one of several challenges against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott after the Republican-led Texas Legislature redrew political maps following the 2020 U.S. Census.
And although this week’s hearing is limited in scope — it pertains to one state senate district in North Texas — attorneys said testimony could foretell what is to come later this year when a slew of other redistricting challenges are heard in a consolidated redistricting lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama will hear a challenge to the redrawn political boundaries for Fort Worth’s state Senate District 10, currently represented by Democrat Beverly Powell. Powell and six Tarrant County residents filed the lawsuit in early November, alleging the new map purposely dilutes the voting strength of minorities.
“In each decennial redistricting cycle in modern history, Texas has enacted plans that federal courts have ruled to be racially discriminatory in intent and/or effect. Like clockwork, Texas has done so again,” the lawsuit asserts. “Remarkably, Texas has enacted the same racially discriminatory scheme to dismantle Senate District 10.”
Attorney Mark P. Gaber, who represents Powell and the other plaintiffs, said their case is scheduled ahead of the others this fall because they asked the judge to make a decision in time for the November 2022 General Election.
“The claims are that the drawing of the senate district was intentionally discriminatory by cracking apart Black and Latino voters. What we are asking the court to do is enter relief in time to affect the November 22 election,” he said. “So, we would put the district that exists now back in place and that would require some changes to the surrounding districts as well.”
Graber said this week’s hearing could foreshadow what to expect later this year.
“I imagine for one thing there is going to be testimony and that doesn’t go away. And that could be relevant to other claims as well,” he said. “We’ll probably get some legal ruling from the court that will affect issues beyond Senate District 10 in terms of what the court determines are the facts of law.”
Of the federal redistricting complaints, Powell’s alone seeks an injunction and changes to the maps ahead of the March 1 primary elections. A panel of three federal judges set a September trial start date in the consolidated redistricting case. There’s also a challenge in Texas state court.
“A crucial fight is underway to preserve District 10 as a Tarrant County-based diverse district where minority voters and Anglos unite to elect their candidate of choice,” said Powell, who is suing as a private citizen and not in her official capacity, when she filed for reelection last month.
The previously Fort Worth-centric seat that had been contained inside Tarrant County grew at least tenfold in geographic size and added part of Parker County and all of Johnson, Palo Pinto, Stephens, Shackelford, Callahan and Brown counties.
It previously favored President Joe Biden by eight points, according to election returns. But the redrawn district would have gone for Donald Trump by 16 points, a 24-point swing that likely dooms Powell’s hopes for reelection.
Republicans say the maps are legal and fair. Lawyers for the state argued the Legislature acted according to partisan motivations, not racial ones, and warned that blocking the map would disrupt the 2022 elections already in motion.
“This case is about politics, not race,” state lawyers responded in a filing that was blunt about the GOP majority’s approach. “Their goal, as always, was to design to elect a Republican. And they succeeded, at least on paper.”
Texas argued the Tarrant County citizens’ claims fail because “the Legislature simply did not consider race for purposes of redrawing” District 10 except for compliance with applicable law.
To lock things in place until the lawsuit is resolved, Powell’s legal team asked the federal court to block the map, with respect to District 10, from being used in elections and to restore the district’s previous boundaries. The plaintiffs also asked the court to delay primary elections affected by that change, noting that lawmakers already approved a back-up primary schedule.
It’s unclear, if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs on District 10, which other primaries would be delayed. The goal is to restore the seat with as few changes as possible to the rest of the map, said Matt Angle, founder and director of the progressive Lone Star Project.
I noted this hearing in yesterday’s post about the state of the state lawsuits, as those now will be held later (if they are not tossed by SCOTx) and will not have an effect on this year’s primaries. I don’t expect there to be any delays in the primaries this year. It’s possible that the three-judge panel, which has one Trump judge, one Obama judge, and the ever-present Jerry Smith, could issue an injunction, but
I doubt that the Fifth Circuit would let it stand, and if somehow that happened then SCOTUS would intervene SCOTUS would get to have a say as well. (Yes, maybe I’m being cynical, but how is that a losing proposition these days?) Whatever does happen, it will have to happen quickly – we’ve already passed the deadline for mail ballots to be sent to military and overseas voters, and early in person voting for the primaries starts in less than three weeks. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this.
UPDATE: Made a correction to note that the appeals process from this three-judge panel goes to SCOTUS, not the Fifth Circuit.