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Despite Supreme Court ruling, Texas congressional map still very uncertain

at 01:17 PM ET, 01/20/2012

The drama over Texas’s new congressional map will drag on after the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday blocked an interim court-drawn map. .

The Court on Friday ruled that an interim 2012 election map drawn by a federal court in San Antonio must give greater deference to the original map drawn by the GOP-controlled Texas state legislature.

The ruling is at least a temporary victory for Republicans, in that it blocks an interim map to be used for the 2012 election that is preferred by Democrats. But it’s still not clear that the end result will be any better for Republicans. In fact, it’s not clear what the end result will be at all.

While the court-drawn map would have created three Democratic seats and one Republican seat (the state is gaining four seats due to rapid population growth over the past decade) the GOP state legislature’s plan created three Republican seats and one Democratic seat.

The Fix asked several plugged-in sources what the most likely result is now, and got four different answers. Most observers said a two-two-split would make sense, but others suggested either side could still win three of the seats.

“The Democrats will gain” over the original GOP plan, said former congressman Martin Frost (D-Texas). “They just won’t gain as much as they otherwise could have. But the Supreme Court left the door open for the San Antonio court, with the right rationale, to create three Democratic seats.”

At the heart of that uncertainty is a relatively open-ended decision by the Court today, which essentially ruled on just two things:

One, that the San Antonio court needed to base its map on the state legislature’s map rather than crafting a wholly new map.

And two, that the San Antonio court failed to justify why it drew a district in the Dallas-Forth Worth area that included enough African-Americans and Hispanics to make it a majority-minority district — i.e. a “coalition” district.

(For a recap of the ruling, see Robert Barnes’s piece from this morning.)

The question now is how the San Antonio court responds to Supreme Court ruling.

Concurrently to this case is one working its way through Washington, D.C. where Texas is seeking Voting Rights Act pre-clearance of the legislature’s map. It’s unlikely to get it, which is why the San Antonio court was tasked with drawing an interim 2012 map, but whatever ruling is made could provide guidance for the San Antonio court in crafting a new interim map.

If the D.C. court rules, for example, that certain districts do or do not meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, then the San Antonio court’s task will be clearer.

If the D.C. court’s ruling is broader and doesn’t provide much guidance, the San Antonio court could take things in any number of directions — albeit using the state legislature’s map as a starting point.

The D.C. court case is set to last another week, but it’s not yet clear when a decision will be rendered.

Either way, the fact that the San Antonio court must base its map on the state legislature’s map is a win for the GOP. Republicans crafted a map in which 26 of the state’s 36 districts went at least 52 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election, and the other 10 all went less than 40 percent for the Republican — a classic partisan gerrymander in which Democrats are packed into as few districts as possible.

And the San Antonio court has been served notice that it much justify any major change to that map. Therefore, it seems logical that it would be more reluctant to make such major changes.

The state has already postponed its primaries once and may have to do so again; it would need to complete the interim map by the end of the month for the state to be able to hold its current April primary.

One thing to keep in mind through all of this: This is just an interim map we’re talking about. The GOP is likely to control the state legislature next election cycle as well, at which point it can draw a brand new congressional map that will differ from the interim map.

Of course, that map will again be subject to litigation. Which is a good reminder that everything in politics eventually comes down to lawyers.

 
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