There is a way the U.S. Supreme Court can extract some sense out of a wildly politicized Voting Rights Act it heard Monday, argues a prominent redistricting specialist. “Don’t mess with Texas” — this time, the U.S. Supreme Court should have listened. The court has injected itself into a 10-gallon disaster that grows messier with every passing day. Today, the court hears arguments. If only it could slowly back out of the room.
The problem arises (again) from a Texas redistricting plan. Last cycle, Texas re-redrew a federal court’s lines, causing Democrats to twice flee the state to gut a legislative quorum. This caused then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to set federal law enforcement on their tail, which in turn earned Mr. DeLay a formal admonishment. The resulting districts were struck down under the Voting Rights Act; the Supreme Court found that they “took away the Latinos’ opportunity because Latinos were about to exercise it.”
This time around, the Texas Legislature drew lines without calling in air support. Because of past discrimination, Texas is subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which means the state must “preclear” election-related changes to ensure that they don’t reduce minority citizens’ practical ability to elect candidates of choice. No changes legally can be implemented until they are precleared. Most other jurisdictions that must preclear redistricting submit Section 5 changes to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a relatively speedy procedure for assessing preclearance — and which has precleared every statewide map that it’s considered this cycle. Texas chose, instead, to go to a federal court in the District of Columbia — a permissible route, but a slower one, with the same substantive standards but a judicial decision-maker rather than the attorney general.