WASHINGTON — A three-judge federal court threw out the Texas legislative districts drawn by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature, holding that they discriminated against Latinos and blacks and violated the Voting Rights Act.
The decision, if upheld on appeal, will force Texas lawmakers to redraw the districts for Congress and the state Legislature so as to elect a greater number of minority legislators.
The ruling will not affect the November elections, however. Earlier this year, federal judges in Texas drew an interim districting plan to be used this year only.
Because Texas has a history of racial discrimination in voting, it is required under the Voting Rights Act to get approval from Washington before changing its election rules. The state's attorneys chose to bypass the Obama administration and the Justice Department and instead went before a three-judge panel.
But in Tuesday's opinion, the unanimous court dealt a surprisingly strong and broad rebuke to the Texas Legislature. The judges found that the GOP leaders had deliberately manipulated the district lines to shore up incumbent white Republicans, to undercut black Democrats and to dilute the voting power of the growing Latino population.
"We agree that that the [redistricting] plan was enacted with a discriminatory purpose," they wrote. "The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern [of undercutting minorities] is 'coincidence.' But if this is coincidence, it was a striking one indeed. It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results."
The Texas population grew by 4.3 million in the last decade, and 89% of the growth was made up of Latinos, blacks and Asians, the court said. The state was given four more seats in the House of Representatives, raising its total to 36.
Blacks and Latinos now make up 39% of the voting-age citizens in the state, the court found. Yet despite this surge in its minority population, Latinos and blacks were not likely to win even one more seat in Congress under the plan drawn by the Texas Legislature, the judges said. Currently, 10 of 32 Texas representatives in the House are minorities.
Although the law does not "entitle minorities to proportional representation," this growing "representation gap" between the growth in Latino voters and the fixed number of Latino lawmakers is strong evidence that the state is diluting the voting strength of its minority population, the judges said.
Black Democrats also fared badly in the new districting plan, the judges said. They were shut out of the deliberations in Austin when the plans were drawn up.
In several instances, the map makers "removed the economic guts" from districts in Houston and Dallas that were represented by black Democrats, the judges said. The judges pointed to examples in which a city business center was removed from the district held by a black Democrat and made part of a district held by a white Republican.
Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, which worked on the legal challenge, called the decision "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."
Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, who defended the state's plan, promised an appeal. "Today's decision extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution," Abbott said, adding he "will immediately take steps to appeal this flawed decision to the U.S. Supreme Court."
Texas state lawyers would like the high court to go further and overturn the part of the Voting Rights Act that puts Southern states under special scrutiny. That issue is likely to return to the Supreme Court in the upcoming term.
Unlike other federal cases, disputes under the Voting Rights Act go directly to a three-judge court that includes both appellate and district judges. The Texas case was decided by Appeals Court Judge Thomas Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush; District Judge Rosemary Collyer, also a Bush appointee; and District Judge Beryl Howell, an appointee of President Obama.