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Texas redistricting discriminates against minorities, federal court says

A federal court on Tuesday threw out Texas’s redistricting plans, saying the maps drawn by the Republican-led legislature undermined the political clout of minorities who are responsible for the state’s population growth.

The three-judge special panel in Washington said Texas could not prove that plans for the state’s congressional districts and both houses of the legislature were not drawn without intentional discrimination against the state’s burgeoning Latino population. In addition, it said new district lines removed the “economic guts” from congressional districts now held by African-Americans.

“The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern is ‘coincidence,’ ” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith. “But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed.”

The decision is not likely to change the districts before the November elections; the political parties have already chosen their nominees under interim plans drawn by a different federal court.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) said the state would appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

“Today’s decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution,” Abbott said in a statement.

Texas is the largest state covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of any voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. A separate three-judge panel is expected to rule this week on a new Texas law that requires voters to provide ID. The Obama administration opposed both laws because it says they endanger minority voting rights.

Some states and jurisdictions covered by Section 5 have argued that it is no longer necessary and have asked the Supreme Court to strike it down. The justices will consider next month whether to review the issue.

It’s likely that Democrats and groups who say Section 5 is still a necessary protection will use Tuesday’s decision to buttress their arguments.

The minority and voting rights organizations that opposed the redistricting plans called the ruling a clear victory.

“The court’s decision is a damning indictment of (Gov.) Rick Perry and other Texas Republican leaders who, in a cynical attempt to hold on to power, engaged in intentional discrimination against Texas Latino and African-American voters,” said Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D), chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said that the “face of Texas is changing by the day” and that the redistricting plans approved by the legislature in 2011 reflected “a very old and different Texas.”

Griffith was joined in the decision by U.S. District Judges Rosemary M. Collyer and Beryl A. Howell. Griffith and Collyer were nominated by President George W. Bush; Howell is an Obama nominee.

The judges noted that Texas received four additional congressional districts after the 2010 census because the state’s population grew by about 4.3 million people.

Latinos accounted for 65 percent of the increase, blacks 13.4 percent and Asian-Americans 10.1 percent.

The Obama administration and those involved in the litigation contended that at least one of the new districts should have been drawn to enable a minority to be elected, the court said.

“We agree,” the judges added.

Texas’s redistricting plans already have been to the Supreme Court. The justices said that while the districts designed by the legislature could not be used for the 2012 elections, the plans should serve as a template for federal judges in Texas to design interim plans.

Fischer said it would be late in the game to try to change the districts for the fall elections, since nominees already have been chosen using the boundaries approved by the court. But a challenge was still being considered.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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