Controversial maps that redraw political boundaries in Texas will be sent to trial, delivering a blow to the Republican state lawmakers who dominated the redistricting process. A Washington D.C.-based federal court agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice that the state legislature used an improper standard for determining whether the new districts discriminate against minorities.
For some clarification on the ruling, we spoke to Jim Henson, a University of Texas professor of government and director of the Texas Politics Project.
KUT News: In plain language, what does this ruling mean?
Jim Henson: It means that it throws the whole universe for the elections in a certain amount of disorder. Not completely unpredictable disorder. But disorder.
It means the federal court in San Antonio will be redrawing maps for the elections that are actually coming up very soon in March. They’ve already adjusted the filing deadlines once. Now all the eyes will turn to just what those districts will look like.
You’ve got a whole slew of candidates in Texas, basically everybody in the legislature, running in districts where they don’t really have an enormous amount of assurance what the lines are. That goes for the Congressional races too.
KUT News: What effect does that have on their campaigns?
Henson: They don’t know with any assurance who their constituencies will be. Because the existing maps will be redrawn, and the maps that were proposed have now been rejected, nobody really knows exactly where the district lines are.
I think the smart money is that the courts will be conservative, not ideologically but practically conservative, in the way that they approach drawing lines. But the fact is nobody still knows exactly where those lines will be.
KUT News: Can you explain this language from the courts, a “declaratory judgment”?
Henson: Because elections were coming up, the State of Texas had asked for a quick declaratory judgment from the court in which they would simply declare the maps submitted okay, rather than going through a more extensive vetting process.
As it turned out, there had been a hearing. The Justice Department had weighed in and opposed the maps rather strenuously.
So the bid was for something that would be “faster” but that’s turned out not to be the case.
KUT News: What does this do to the court in San Antonio that was looking at potentially redrawn maps? Do they now defer to the district court?
Henson: Yes. In all likelihood they will now defer to the district court, which is where this judgment has been sent.
In the short run, they’ll concentrate on redrawing, but those will be temporary maps.
KUT News: When will they redraw permanent maps?
Henson: Well, the process will grind on. One of the practical matters is that this court has essentially said that before these maps can be cleared, we have more questions about the methodology used and matters of fact, as the judgment said.
I think it remains to be seen exactly what the factual matters are that need to be ironed out. That judgment doesn’t say what the matters of fact are.
KUT News: Is this a major victory for either political party?
Henson: Yes. This is a big win for the Democrats. Democrats have been trying very hard to stop those maps, and the judgment applies to the Congressional maps, the House maps and the Senate maps.
The Senate maps had been a matter of private litigation by (Texas State Senator) Wendy Davis, MALC (the state’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus), and some other litigants. But it had not received quite the level of attention as the Congressional maps and the State House maps had from the federal government and particularly Justice Department.
So this helps everyone across the board who was opposed to the maps.
KUT News: Jim, thank you so much!
Henson: I hope that helps. I’m going to go back and read some more. Right now, the people that know the most about this are not trying to be in the news cycle. They’re trying to pour over it and figure out what it all means, which is not entirely clear at this point, other than the Republicans lost.