Reversing a stand taken by the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice has told a federal court that it no longer believes past discrimination by Texas officials should require the state to get outside approval for redistricting maps that will be drawn in 2021. As part of a long-running challenge to political districts drawn after the 2010 census, lawyers for minority voters, Democratic candidates and civil rights groups are seeking a ruling that requires federal approval before Texas can use any new maps. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department also had argued that such “preclearance” was necessary because “Texas has a history of intentional racial discrimination in redistricting.” The department no longer believes Texas requires federal oversight, according to a brief filed Tuesday evening by John Gore, the principal deputy assistant attorney general.
Past instances of discrimination “already have been remedied, and many date from decades ago. They therefore do not warrant the extraordinary remedy of preclearance today,” Gore told a three-judge panel that has been handling the case for most of this decade.
Renea Hicks, an Austin lawyer representing groups who challenged the Texas district maps as discriminatory, said the department’s change of heart — made without “any change in the underlying facts or trial evidence” — reeked of politics.
Complicating the case, there are two sets of political maps at issue.
First, there were maps for Texas House and U.S. House districts that were drawn by the Legislature in 2011. Citing voting rights problems with the maps, the three-judge panel drew new districts, only to be reined in by the U.S. Supreme Court, which told the judges to try again, this time giving more deference to the districts drawn by legislators. The three-judge panel complied, making far fewer changes to the 2011 maps.