Election year begins Monday at the Supreme Court

Iowa is history and New Hampshire and South Carolina are about to have their say. But election year at the Supreme Court begins Monday.

In a rare afternoon session only a month after accepting the case, the court will hear a Texas redistricting dispute that is complicated in every way except its bottom line: four new congressional seats that have the potential to decide which party controls the House of Representatives.

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But it is only the first of the cases that will call upon the court to get involved in partisan electoral fights or revisit campaign finance decisions.

On the way are challenges to the Voting Rights Act from jurisdictions that say its restrictions are outdated. The Department of Justice is promising to take a look at voter ID laws that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said hold the potential of disenfranchising the poor and minorities.

And an appeal is on the way from a recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court upholding a state ban on corporate electoral spending. Those who challenged the law said the decision directly conflicts with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations and unions were free to spend on behalf of candidates.

But first, Texas. The state’s congressional delegation expanded from 32 to 36 because its population grew by a phenomenal 4 million people in the last decade. Now, six federal judges in two courts, in addition to the nine justices, are analyzing how Texas legislators redrew the congressional and state legislative districts to accommodate that growth. More than 65 percent of the increase was in the state’s Hispanic population.

The maps drawn by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature were signed by Gov. Rick Perry (R.) But because of past discrimination, Texas is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which means any electoral changes must be approved by either the Department of Justice or a panel of federal judges in Washington.

And while the case at the high court does not directly challenge Section 5, how the justices dispose of the controversy could have much to say about the continued viability of the controversial requirement.

Conservatives on the court expressed great skepticism about the constitutionality of Section 5 in 2009, and it seems only a matter of time before the court considers it again.

The Obama administration has made it clear it will aggressively defend Section 5, which was reauthorized by Congress in 2006. Last month, Holder called it a “critical tool to combat discrimination and safeguard the right to vote.”

Until that showdown comes, the groups challenging Texas’s plans say the state is asking the court to provide a way around Section 5’s requirement that electoral maps be “pre-cleared.”

A three-judge panel in Washington declined to quickly approve the legislatively drawn plan, and seems unlikely to finish its work in time for the state’s primaries, originally scheduled for March and now slated for April.

In the meantime, a three-judge panel in San Antonio drew maps independent of the legislature. Texas has come to the Supreme Court to keep those maps from being used.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) said in an interview last week that the state wants the Supreme Court to defer to the “elected policymakers of the state of Texas” and use the legislatively drawn plans on an “interim” basis for the 2012 election.

Nina Perales, litigation director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said such a request “flips Section 5 completely on its head.” The law requires states to prove their electoral changes do not dilute minority voting rights before they can be used, she said.

Texas’s request is an “attempt to get one more (election) cycle” before having to acknowledge the burgeoning minority population that has fueled the state’s growth, she said.

The Obama administration, supporting the challengers, told the court it should allow the plans drawn by the San Antonio court to be used for this cycle. But that’s exactly what the justices stopped by accepting Texas’ challenge.

One compromise might be to instruct the San Antonio court to rewrite its maps to give more sway to the plans passed by the state legislature.

The partisan implications of the Texas case remain prominently in the background. Political analysts have said that the court-drawn congressional map would increase Democratic chances in three of the four new districts.

“We believe the plaintiffs are doing this for partisan political purposes,” Abbott said in the interview, saying their objections would put Hispanic Republicans at risk.

But Jose Garza, who will argue the case for the Latino groups, denied that. Discrimination against Hispanics in Texas, he said, has occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“Latinos are expressing a desire to be part of the process,” he said.

 
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