Legislators involved in the most recent redistricting effort can be made to sit for depositions.
The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to block the deposition of Texas lawmakers in redistricting suits.
Mum as to whether there were any dissents, the order from the justices keeps in place a lower court ruling that will force Republican lawmakers to appear for depositions in suits claiming that Texas’ redistricting plans are discriminatory. Per their custom, the justices also did not offer any explanation for their ruling.
The United States subpoenaed three Texas lawmakers at the beginning of the month to testify in a challenge to the state’s 2021 congressional and state House redistricting plans. The Department of Justice and voting rights groups claim the new maps violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against minority voters in West Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Representatives Ryan Guillen, Brooks Landgraf and John Lujan tried to limit their testimony to matters in the public record, but a federal judge denied their motion and their attempt to block the testimony altogether. Likewise the Fifth Circuit refused to enter a stay pending appeal that would block their testimony.
In their application to the high court, Texas lawmakers claim they have the privilege and immunity to avoid testifying in the suits.
“The legislators’ depositions will probe the very innerworkings of the legislative process, examining the legislators’ thoughts, impressions, and motivations for their legislative acts,” wrote Taylor A.R. Meehan, an attorney with Consovoy McCarthy representing the lawmakers.
He also warned that lawmakers would have to answer questions in full the “proverbial ‘cat is out of the bag.’ And the twin safeguards of legislative immunity and privilege — older than the country itself — are no safeguards at all.”
The Justice Department said the depositions were routine.
“Courts, including this Court, often rely on such testimony both in assessing the motive and justification for districting choices and in considering the ‘totality of circumstances’ relevant to minority voters’ electoral opportunities, as the VRA directs,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s opposition brief.
The government notes that Lujan has a particularly weak claim to legislative privilege since he was not in the Legislature when the redistricting plans were passed.
“Representative John Lujan, does not have even an arguable claim of legislative privilege with respect to the challenged districting plans because he was not in the legislature when the plans were passed — a critical fact that applicants do not mention,” Prelogar wrote.
This is from the LULAC lawsuit, which is now consolidated with most of the other federal lawsuits. The order is from a couple of weeks ago, as the depositions were set to begin the week of May 24. SCOTUS just never took up the defendants’ motion, so they did not get an order to protect them from being deposed. This is not going to change the overall trajectory of the litigation, but it ought to lead to some interesting facts for the eventual hearings. Lujan as noted was not a legislator when the maps were passed in the special session, so who knows what he thinks he has to keep quiet about, while Guillen was still a Democrat when this was all happening. Should make for some fun questions, if nothing else.
The other federal lawsuit, which was not combined with the LULAC et al complaint, is the one filed by the Justice Department. That one survived a motion to dismiss:
A federal judge has ruled that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland can proceed with voting and civil rights claims against Texas over a state law passed last year to address purported voter fraud.
State officials had asked U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez to dismiss the case, arguing that federal officials did not have standing to sue them. They argued that local election officials — not state ones — were charged with implementing the new law.
The George W. Bush appointee disagreed in an order Tuesday, finding the U.S. attorney general has “broad constitutional power to protect the right to vote” and is “congressionally authorized” to go after voting rights violations.
The federal government had a “significant stake” in protecting “the general welfare of its citizenry,” Rodriguez wrote. He found the U.S. government had plausibly alleged that Texas law would “disenfranchise eligible Texas citizens who seek to exercise their vote,” including those with disabilities, limited knowledge of English and “members of the military deployed away from home.”
In November, the U.S. attorney general’s office intervened, expressing an interest the [LULAC et al consolidated] case and urging Rodriguez not to dismiss the claims. Voting lawsuits brought by private groups were necessary, the filing argued, due to the “limited federal resources available for Voting Rights Act enforcement” and because states with histories of voter restrictions no longer had to seek federal preclearance for voting changes following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.
Later that month, the AG’s office also filed suit against the Lone Star State. In a strongly worded complaint, federal officials argued that Texas already had some of the “strictest [voting] limitations in the nation” and that SB1 would “impermissibly” restrict and disenfranchise voters.
Texas’s “history of official voting-related discrimination against its disfavored citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the complaint said. “Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”
This lengthy and complex legal battle, involving a variety of parties, led up to Tuesday’s order. Over the months, Texas officials have tried numerous avenues to dismiss the case.
Among other things, state officials zeroed in on the state’s new voter ID and mail-in ballot requirements. Because the state allows voters to “cure” their ballots, they argued, the law did not deny the right to vote.
Rodriguez rejected this argument and others, writing that a voter’s opportunity to cure their ballot “does not necessarily mean” that SB 1 did not violate the Civil Rights Act. The law does not allow state officials to “initially deny the right to vote…as long as they institute cure processes,” he wrote. Instead, it bars these actions altogether.
He also found that, while local elections officials may be in charge of implementing the law, SB 1 was in fact “traceable” to state officials, and therefore they could be sued. Since the law has so far been in effect for the state’s primary elections, the U.S. government had also alleged an injury, he found.
Rather than issuing an injunction preventing enforcement of parts of SB 1, Rodriguez’s order instead simply allows the U.S. government to continue with its lawsuit. It remains to be seen how the case will play out, including whether controversial aspects of SB 1 will remain in effect for the 2022 midterm elections later this year.
There’s a long road ahead for this litigation, and at the end awaits a US Supreme Court that is extremely hostile to voting rights. But you have to start somewhere, and who knows, maybe the landscape will change by that time.