AUSTIN — The U.S. Department of Justice is arguing that Texas' new voting maps for Congress and for the state House were drawn by the Republican-led Legislature with discriminatory intent against minority voters, and has asked a federal court to reject the plans.
In briefs filed with the court Tuesday, the Justice Department says that both maps are retrogressive, meaning minority voters' ability to elect their candidates of choice is diminished.
The state, represented by Attorney General Greg Abbott, contends that the plans maintain or increase the voting strength of minorities and are in compliance with the law.
A three-judge panel in Washington has scheduled a hearing on the case for Wednesday.
The legal fight in Washington revolves around a requirement in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that certain states, including Texas, be granted "preclearance" before redistricting maps and other changes in voting practices can be enacted. Texas has submitted its plans to judges in Washington seeking approval. The legal standard is whether the new plan has the purpose or the effect of denying or diminishing the right to vote based on race or color.
The Justice Department says Texas has not met that standard. It says "discriminatory intent permeated the congressional redistricting process, based on a broad array of circumstantial evidence."
District boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to reflect changes in census data. This year, Texas received four new congressional seats — increasing the delegation from 32 to 36 — because of a population surge fueled by Hispanics.
The state argues that the proposed plan increases the number of minority districts in the congressional plan from eight to 10. But the Justice Department says the analysis used by the state is inadequate because it only looks at population statistics rather than taking into account historical election data like turnout.
Using a more detailed analysis, the U.S. says the proposed congressional map does not change the number of effective minority districts, maintaining 10.
"Because the proposed plan includes the four new Texas congressional seats, the plan substantially decreases the percentage of minority ability-to-elect districts when compared to the benchmark plan," the Justice Department argues.
Under the proposal, 479,704 fewer Hispanics would reside in districts where they would be able to elect their congressional candidates of choice, attorneys contend. The percentage of minority voters — black and Hispanic — in such districts would fall from 31.3 percent to 27.7 percent under the Texas plan.
In the proposed map for the 150-member Texas House, the Justice Department argues that minority districts are reduced from 50 to 45. The state has asserted the number of minority districts would increase from 41 to 42.
"The United States contends that a purpose of the proposed State House redistricting plan is to eliminate the minority communities' ability to elect their candidate of choice in districts won by candidates not preferred by the minority voters in the watershed 2010 election," they argued. Republicans won an unprecedented majority of the Texas House seats during last year's tea-party fueled elections.
Abbott's office said that what the Justice Department labeled discrimination is just the Legislature's decision to protect incumbents of a certain party.
"Despite their outrageous claims, if one looks behind DOJ's inflammatory rhetoric, they produce no genuine evidence of discrimination," said Abbott's spokeswoman Lauren Bean. "Ironically, DOJ is objecting to districts that the Legislature specifically enacted to protect Hispanic incumbents - who happen to be Republicans - in the same manner that the Legislature worked to protect incumbents of both parties."
The maps were approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry this summer. The court has already cleared the new map for the State Board of Education. The Justice Department did not take issue with a map for Texas Senate districts.
A separate case in San Antonio, a combination of several lawsuits filed by minority and Democratic groups, has been stalled while awaiting a resolution from the Washington court. The San Antonio court has scheduled a hearing to begin Monday that could determine what maps will be temporarily put in place so election officials can prepare for next year's primary elections.
Hispanics have accounted for two-thirds of the state's growth since 2000. Yet during the two-week federal trial in San Antonio, opponents argued that GOP mapmakers went out of their way to stifle those gains and deny Hispanics greater voting power.