After more than a year of political and legal wrangling, the latest round of Texas redistricting reaches the U.S. Supreme Court today in a case that may help reshape the state's political landscape for years.
The nine justices have set aside an hour for oral arguments to determine which political maps the state should use for this year's elections. The court agreed last month to hear an emergency challenge by Texas Republicans to court-drawn maps that had been set for the 2012 election cycle.
At stake are the congressional and legislative boundaries that Texas will use for the next decade.
The case could help determine the balance of power in the House of Representatives in 2013, with Republicans in a stronger position if the court allows Texas to use electoral districts drawn by the GOP-dominated Legislature.
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Another issue is when Texas will be allowed to hold its 2012 primaries. Texas Republicans and Democrats recently agreed to move the primaries from March 6 to April 3 in light of the legal logjam, but that assumes the Supreme Court will settle the matter in perhaps a week or so.
Some candidates and consultants fear the court could take as long as a month to decide the issue, which could further push back the primaries.
"Every day that goes by, it becomes harder and harder to conduct an April 3 election," Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said.
All states set about redrawing their political boundaries every 10 years in light of population changes. The stated goal is to draw fair maps, though the definition of fair depends on whom you ask. Ideally, redistricting should create compact districts that avoid splitting up communities.
In recent decades, Texas' efforts have prompted multiple trips to the Supreme Court; the most recent case before the current one was in 1996.
Work on the current redistricting efforts stretches back well over a year. Hearings seeking public input were held statewide. Lawmakers and party leaders discussed how they hoped to see the districts drawn.
Things kicked into overdrive in February when the Census Bureau released its 2010 count for Texas. The new population figures showed that the state had grown over the last decade by more than 20 percent, with Hispanics accounting for over two-thirds of that. The boom means that Texas will have 36 seats instead of 32 in the 435-member House next year.
In Austin, the Republican-controlled Legislature proposed new maps of congressional and legislative districts. Democrats and several minority groups decried the plans as diluting the power of minority voters. Lawsuits began to be filed even before Gov. Rick Perry had signed the maps into law.
Because of a history of racial discrimination in voting, Texas is among 16 states required to get federal approval of election changes under the Voting Rights Act. A federal court in Washington, D.C., would not approve the Legislature's maps. That prompted federal judges in San Antonio to draw temporary maps that were widely seen as favoring Democrats.
The Texas attorney general's office will try to convince Supreme Court justices today that the state should get to use the maps approved by the Legislature last year because no federal court has rejected them. A ruling in their favor could compromise a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts say.
"What Texas is trying to do is game the system by saying, 'Well, we haven't pre-cleared the plans but let us put them into effect anyway,'" said Nina Perales with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, part of a coalition of parties opposing the state in the suit. Others involved in the legal action include the Texas Democratic Party and state Sen. Wendy Davis and state Rep. Marc Veasey, both Fort Worth Democrats.
Eight other states signed a brief backing Texas, saying a map approved by a state's elected officials should be given more deference if federal authorities haven't ruled on its legality.
"Courts may be competent to alter district lines to account for violations of federal law, but they are ill-suited to draw such lines from scratch," the brief reads.
Until the court decides, candidates statewide are stuck in a holding pattern as they wait to see which maps are approved. Some such as Veasey and Republican Roger Williams have framed their plans to run for Congress based on assumptions that they can run in a district drawn a certain way. If the map turns out differently, their political plans could change.
Election officials say planning for the primary will take weeks after the maps are finalized. New voter registration cards that were supposed to be mailed out this month are on hold. Also, ballots for military and overseas voters need to go out 45 days before the primary under a new federal law.
"Unless those maps come out real quickly, we'll never make that 45-day deadline," Raborn said.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.
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