The Justice Department has ruled that the congressional redistricting plan passed by Texas Republicans violates minority voting protections--a ruling likely to create a contentious legal battle.

The Texas attorney general last week filed in court to get the maps approved, but a Justice Department filing Monday indicates the federal government will fight the case. It said the plan wouldn’t “maintain or increase the ability of minority voters to elect their candidate of choice.”

Texas Republicans passed a controversial map that critics say masks the growth and power in the state’s Latino population. Despite much of the state’s growth being Hispanic, just one additional majority-Latino district was created amongst the state’s four new districts, while Republicans created three other winnable districts for themselves.

While the Department of Justice made no recommendations on the state Senate and state Board of Education maps passed by the state legislature, it said neither the state House nor congressional maps pass muster.

Democrats hailed the decision as proof that Republicans who draw favorable districts at all costs will face their day in court. This is the first redistricting cycle since the Voting Rights Act was passed in which the Justice Department serves a Democratic administration.

“Most importantly, today’s DOJ filing tells us that DOJ is indeed taking a careful look at state redistricting plans and that it’s not hesitant to approve one set of lines and challenge another,” said Democratic redistricting lawyer Jeff Wice. “The career staff has regained center stage, making objective and informed judgments.”

Texas is one of several states that must gain what is called “pre-clearance” for its redistricting maps from the Justice Department, due to its history of discrimination against minorities.

Instead of waiting for that pre-clearance, though, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) filed suit in the District of Columbia District Court — another option that is available to states that require pre-clearance.

The Voting Rights Act dictates that states are not allowed to dilute the voting power of minorities.

Texas Republicans in 2003 passed another controversial redistricting map that led to the defeat of several Democrats. In 2006, part of that map with struck down by the Supreme Court.

Legal experts say the ensuing court battle could take a long time, potentially forcing the District Court in San Antonio to draw maps that could be used in 2012. The district court can begin drawing its own maps now.