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Supreme Court votes for states' rights in Texas redistricting case

January 22, 2012 |  8:50 am

Supreme Court
For those who follow political and legal controversies over the Voting Rights Act, there were a couple of eyebrow-raising features of the Supreme Court’s decision last week in a Texas case.

The court rejected an interim redistricting plan necessitated by population growth that will give the state four new seats in the House of Representatives. The plan was drawn by a federal court in Texas, which rejected a map drawn by the state legislature.

The lower court’s plan was friendlier to the creation of minority districts than the legislature’s version. But the justices ordered the lower court to go back to the drawing board and use the legislature’s plan as a “starting point” for a map to be used in the April 3 primary. They criticized the lower court for having "substituted its own concept of the 'collective public good' for the Texas Legislature's determination of which policies serve the interests of the citizens of Texas."

The legislature’s map is still awaiting approval -- or disapproval -- by a special federal court in Washington, D.C. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states with a history of racial discrimination in voting must “preclear” voting changes with either the attorney general or the D.C. court. Meanwhile, opponents of the legislature’s map sought to block it based on another part of the Voting Rights Act covering the entire nation. Thus the Texas federal court’s map.

The legalities are complicated, the politics less so. The legislature’s map was drawn by a Republican majority. It is opposed by Democrats and Latino activists who say it dilutes minority voting power.

Hovering over the dispute is an argument by conservatives that Section 5, which like the rest of the Voting Rights Act was inspired by the discriminatory practices of the 1950s and 1960s, is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has not squarely addressed that issue, but -- ominously for minorities and the Democrats they tend to support -- it said in a 2009 case that Section 5 raised “serious constitutional questions” related to states’ rights. This week’s decision cited that language.

So what’s so intriguing about this decision? First, it was unanimous, coming in an unsigned opinion with no recorded dissents. That suggests that even liberals on the court take seriously the idea that federal judges are too ready to override the decisions of legislators in states with a history of old-fashioned voting discrimination. That’s a sign of the times. So is the fact that the court that overrode the legislature in the Texas case was located -- in Texas! The reason Congress gave preclearance authority to a federal court in Washington was that it didn’t trust federal judges in the South to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Is that an obsolete assumption? If so, is the Voting Rights Act itself a relic? Sooner or later the Supreme Court will have to address that question.


Say no to retroactivity

Sue your own state? Why not?

Challenging eyewitness evidence

-- Michael McGough

Photo: The Supreme Court. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

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