The U.S. Justice Department told judges Monday that Texas lawmakers carefully crafted electoral maps marginalizing minority voters despite the state’s exploding Hispanic population in a deliberate effort to racially discriminate and protect conservative incumbents. Attorneys for Texas countered that the Legislature did the best it could, given that it had to devise maps partisan enough to pass the Republican majority, while dismissing suggestions of intentional discrimination. The case, which opened before a three-judge federal court panel in San Antonio, concerns electoral districts drawn in 2011 for U.S. House elections, as well as voting maps for the state House. It could also have national implications — the Justice Department has joined and is arguing that the Voting Rights Act should still apply to Texas despite a recent Supreme Court ruling weakening many of its key portions.
Last year, the high court found that Texas and 14 other states with a history of voting discrimination no longer need permission from Washington under the Voting Rights Act before changing the way elections are held. Attorney General Eric Holder has since vowed to preserve voter safeguards after the ruling, and the Justice Department is now using the San Antonio trial to argue that Texas still needs federal approval under a lesser-known portion of the act.
“The state of Texas, as it has in redistricting cycles since 1970, adopted maps that discriminated against its citizens,” Bryan Sells, an attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said during opening statements.
The trial is expected to last a week, and no decision is expected for months. The ruling won’t change elections in Texas because federal judges have already thrown out the original 2011 voting maps and drawn new ones with more districts that lean Democratic.