The population growth means Texas will have four additional seats in Congress, and some political analysts say the redistricting maps are critical because they could help decide which party controls the House of Representatives.
The Supreme Court’s opinion was the first round in a series of looming challenges in which the justices are likely to be asked to referee battles over redistricting, the application of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Obama administration’s vow to police voter law changes enacted by Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Just hours after the Texas ruling, the justices stayed a lower court decision that struck down West Virginia’s congressional redistricting plan because the judges said it deviated too much from the “one-person, one-vote” standard.
“In every decade since the 1960s, the court has stepped up its role in regulating the elections process,” said Heather Gerken, an election law expert at Yale Law School who is advising President Obama’s reelection effort.
Friday’s decision was a modest one, she said. “But my feeling is this begins with a whimper and ends with a bang.”
The ruling, which came 11 days after the court heard arguments, sent the case back to a three-judge panel in San Antonio.
“A district court should take guidance from the state’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan,” the justices wrote. At the same time, they said, the court must be careful not to incorporate parts of a state’s plan that might violate the Constitution and Voting Rights Act.
The ruling was nuanced enough that both sides found reason to claim victory.
“The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement. “As the justices point out, courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the state.”
But Pamela Karlan, a constitutional law expert at Stanford University who is representing challengers to the Texas plan, said the ruling simply requires lower court judges to be more clear about the decisions they make.
She compared the court’s decision with a schoolteacher telling a student, “You got the right answer, but you didn’t show enough of your work.”
Because of its population growth over the past decade, Texas was awarded four new congressional districts, bringing its total to 36. Nearly two-thirds of that growth was in the Hispanic community, and Latino groups said the plans approved by Texas’s legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry (R) improperly diluted their power.