As the election year dawns, the U.S. Supreme Court is right in the thick of it. The justices return today from their holiday break to hear arguments on an expedited basis over minority voting rights in Texas’s congressional and state legislative districts. Together with disputes over immigration and health care, the redistricting case is part of a Supreme Court term with repercussions for November’s presidential and congressional elections. The Texas case will determine the power of judges to redraw voting-district lines — and will test the strength of a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: its requirement that some states get federal “preclearance” before changing election rules. Texas is asking the high court to put in place three Republican-drawn maps for this year’s elections, even though they haven’t received that preclearance.
“It would essentially give a major way for states to circumvent the Voting Rights Act,” said Pamela Karlan, a professor at Stanford Law School who represents the Texas Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the groups battling the state’s Republicans in court. The preclearance requirement is designed to ensure that states and other jurisdictions don’t dilute the election power of minority groups. The requirement covers all or parts of 16 states with a history of voting rights violations.
The Supreme Court dispute stems from maps drawn last year by the Republican-controlled Texas legislature after the decennial census. Governor Rick Perry, now a Republican candidate for president, signed the maps into law. A panel of federal judges in San Antonio blocked the Republican districts from taking effect for 2012 and substituted court-drawn interim plans on a 2-1 vote. The majority said the state maps couldn’t be used because they hadn’t been precleared.