Supreme Court Largely Rejects Racial Gerrymandering Challenge Against Texas
The Supreme Court has largely rejected a challenge to state and Federal redistricting maps in the State of Texas.
The Supreme Court has largely upheld the redistricting map drawn by the State of Texas, overturning the decision of a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court that had held that a trio of districts in Texas had been drawn in a way that was racially discriminatory:
The Supreme Court on Monday largely upheld Texas congressional and legislative maps that a lower court said discriminated against black and Hispanic voters.
The lower court was wrong in how it considered the challenges, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the 5 to 4 decision. The majority sided with the challengers over one legislative district.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was longer than Alito’s majority decision. She said the decision “does great damage to the right of equal opportunity. Not because it denies the existence of that right, but because it refuses its enforcement.”
Alito was joined in the outcome by the court’s most consistent conservatives — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.
Thomas and Gorsuch added they do not believe the Voting Rights Act applies to redistricting.
Sotomayor was joined by the court’s liberals: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.
After the 2010 census, Texas was awarded four new congressional districts because of the state’s population growth. Almost all of the growth came from an increase in black and Hispanic residents, but the new maps produced by the legislature fulfilled its goal of protecting Anglo Republicans, the challengers charged.
The maps were found by the district court to probably be unconstitutional, and the judges drew interim maps to be used in the 2012 elections.
The outcomes, though, were much the same. In 2013, the Republican legislature voted to permanently adopt those judicially drawn maps.
Texas argued it could not be a racial gerrymander when using the lines drawn by the neutral judges.
More from The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday largely upheld an array of congressional and state legislative districts in Texas, reversing trial court rulings that said the districts violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against voters on the basis of race.
The vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the trial court had “committed a fundamental legal error” by requiring state officials to justify their use of voting maps that had been largely drawn by the trial court itself.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion represented a dark day for voting rights.
The Constitution and the Voting Rights Act “secure for all voters in our country, regardless of race, the right to equal participation in our political processes,” she wrote. “Those guarantees mean little, however, if courts do not remain vigilant in curbing states’ efforts to undermine the ability of minority voters to meaningfully exercise that right.”
There was an odd wrinkle in the case: The San Antonio court itself had for the most part endorsed the contested maps in 2012, after the Supreme Court rejected earlier ones and told the court to try again. The 2012 maps, the panel later said, had been considered in haste in advance of pending elections. In 2013, the Texas Legislature decided not to draw new maps and instead mostly adopted the one drawn by the San Antonio court.
After three election cycles using the interim maps, the court ruled that they were flawed. “Although this court had ‘approved’ the maps for use as interim maps, given the severe time constraints it was operating under at the time of their adoption,” the court said, that approval was “not based on a full examination of the record or the governing law” and was “subject to revision.”
The court concluded that Texas’ adoption of the interim maps was part of “a litigation strategy designed to insulate the 2011 or 2013 plans from further challenge, regardless of their legal infirmities.”
Justice Alito disagreed. “There is nothing to suggest that the Legislature proceeded in bad faith — or even that it acted unreasonably — in pursuing this strategy,” he wrote.
Much of the dispute between the two sides in Monday’s decision concerned whether the case was properly before the justices at all.
The San Antonio court had not issued an injunction compelling the state to do anything, Justice Sotomayor wrote. Instead, it instructed Texas officials to promptly advise it about whether they would try to draw new maps. That meant, she said, that there was no lower-court decision for the Supreme Court to review.
But Justice Alito wrote that the trial court’s action was effectively an injunction and that the Supreme Court therefore had jurisdiction to hear the state’s appeal.
“The short time given the Legislature to respond is strong evidence that the three-judge court did not intend to allow the elections to go ahead under the plans it had just condemned,” he wrote. “The Legislature was not in session, so in order to take up the task of redistricting, the governor would have been required to convene a special session — which is no small matter.”
Amy Howe summarizes the opinion:
Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Alito began by rejecting the challengers’ contention that the Supreme Court lacked the authority to review the case at all because federal law only gives the court the power to hear appeals from a three-judge district court that either grants or denies an injunction – which, the challengers argued, the district court’s orders were not. Even if the district court had not specifically labeled the orders at issue in this case as “injunctions,” Alito explained, the real question is whether the orders had the “practical effect” of an injunction. And these did, he reasoned, because the orders not only found violations of federal law and the U.S. Constitution but also required the state to quickly notify the court whether the state legislature would meet to fix the violations. “The short time given the Legislature to respond,” Alito posited, “is strong evidence that the three-judge court did not intend to allow the elections to go ahead under the plans it had just condemned” – which, “for all intents and purposes, constituted” injunctions against the state.
Alito then turned to what he characterized as the main question on the merits of the state’s appeal: whether the district court was wrong “when it required the State to show that the 2013 Legislature somehow purged the ‘taint’ that the court attributed to the defunct and never-used plans enacted by a prior legislature in 2011.” According to Alito, the district court’s analysis was exactly backward: Even if a state has been found to have discriminated in the past, he observed, there is still a presumption that it acted properly in drafting later redistricting plans. This means that the plaintiffs challenging a redistricting plan still have to show that the legislature intended to discriminate when it enacted the current plan.
Alito acknowledged that the intent of the Texas legislature when it enacted the 2011 plan was something that a court could consider, and he added that the mere fact that the 2013 plans largely mirrored the 2012 interim plans adopted by the court did not immunize the 2013 plans from a challenge. But when all of the evidence is considered together, Alito concluded, it does not show that the legislature intended to discriminate against minority voters. If anything, Alito stressed, the available evidence suggests that the legislature did not intend to discriminate, but instead adopted the 2013 plans because it had been advised that doing so was the best way to end the “expensive and time consuming” litigation over the redistricting plans.
In response to the majority’s opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by the Court’s three other Democratic-appointed Justices that argued, interestingly enough, that the Court should not have reached the merits of the case. As Sotomayor notes in her dissent, this was because the three-judge panel did not grant or deny an injunction and warned that the majority’s decision to rule on the merits of the case would lead to a flood of litigants in similar cases requesting Supreme Court review in cases that are not appropriate for Supreme Court review. Despite that position, Sotomayor did not hold back her criticism of the Court’s ruling or Justice Alito’s reasoning in the majority opinion, as Howe goes on to note:
Although the majority should not have discussed the merits at all, Sotomayor continued, there too it went astray. First, Sotomayor complained, the district court did not (contrary to Texas’ assertion and the majority’s conclusion) get the legal test wrong: The district court did focus on the legislature’s intent when it adopted the 2013 plans, “rather than simply presuming invidious intent from the failure to remove the taint, as the majority claims.” And when all of the evidence is considered together, Sotomayor contended, the district court properly concluded that the legislature did intend to discriminate.
In a blistering final paragraph that closed with the phrase “I dissent,” rather than the “I respectfully dissent” often used by the justices, Sotomayor protested that today’s ruling “does great damage to” the right “to equal participation in our political processes.” “Not because it denies the existence of that right, but because it refuses its enforcement. The Court intervenes when no intervention is authorized and blinds itself to the overwhelming factual record below. It does all of this to allow Texas to use electoral maps that, in design and effect, burden the rights of minority voters.”
As noted, the Court did not completely absolve the State of Texas in this case. It held that one state legislative district was an improper racial gerrymander and that it must be redrawn pursuant to the Court’s ruling and the ruling of the three-Judge panel. That will likely require the redrawing of lines for several adjoining state legislative districts, but it will have at best a limited impact on the makeup of the Texas Legislature and no impact at all on the Congressional District map, which will remain in effect until redistricting takes place in the wake of the 2020 Census. Overall, then, the political impact of all of this is likely to be minimal at best, and it’s likely to mean that Texas will follow largely the same strategy in drawing the district lines after the 2020 Census that it did after the 2013 Census, with largely similar results.
This case, of course, follows on the heels of the Court’s ruling in the two political gerrymandering cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland, which it essentially punted back to the lower courts on procedural grounds. Unlike those cases, though, this case was a ruling on the merits, and one that largely rejected the formula that the lower Court used to find that there was improper considering to race given when the Court drew the current Congressional map and that at least two of the state’s Districts, the 27th Congressional District and the 35th Congressional District, were improperly drawn on racial grounds. Unlike the political gerrymandering cases, this essentially means the end of the challenges to the post-2010 Census map in Texas except with respect to that single state legislature district, although it’s likely to be some time before that issue is fully resolved.
Here’s the opinion: