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Emergency Texas GOP appeal granted, putting redistricting plans on hold

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court granted an emergency appeal Friday night from Texas Republicans, putting on hold a redistricting map drawn by judges that gave the Democrats a good chance to pick up at least three seats in the next Congress.

In an unusual move, the justices announced they would schedule special arguments on Jan. 9 to decide whether Texas and other southern states may proceed to hold elections under new redistricting plans that have not been approved under the Voting Rights Act.

The fast-track case will pit Texas Republicans against Latinos and Democrats who say the state’s congressional delegation should more closely reflect the surge in the Latino population.

The outcome could also affect who controls the House of Representatives, political experts said.

“The Supreme Court is going to be thrust into the unusual position of deciding a case with immediate partisan consequences,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor and election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “It is no exaggeration to say that with three or four additional Democratic seats at issue under the original court-drawn plan, the decision could help decide control of the House.”

Texas was the big winner in the 2010 census. Its population grew by 4.3 million and it was given four more seats in the House, bringing its total to 36. But with the GOP in control of its Legislature, its congressional districts were redrawn in a way that Republicans were likely to win all of the new seats.

But under the Voting Rights Act, Texas could not put this plan into effect until it had been “pre-cleared” in Washington by the Justice Department or a federal court. The Obama administration objected to the Texas plan, as did several Latino civil rights groups.

They said that because the new congressional seats were due to the increase in Latinos, three or more districts should be drawn in a way that would give Latinos a good chance of winning election.

An impasse arose in the past month. Three judges in Washington refused to clear the plan under the Voting Rights Act. In response, a separate three-judge panel in San Antonio, Texas, decided to draw an “interim map” for the state so election planning could begin for 2012.

Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriquez said Texas lawmakers were due to file for election by Dec. 15, and they needed to know where their districts would be located. The federal judges, by a 2-1 vote, also approved redistricting maps for the state House and Senate. These interim maps drew three new congressional districts that favored Latinos.

Political experts in Texas foresaw Democrats winning three or perhaps four more seats in the House of Representatives if this interim map had been used in the 2012 elections.

Texas Republicans, led by Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney Geneneral Greg Abbott, cried foul, and last week they asked the Supreme Court to intervene. They said the San Antonio-based judges had overplayed their hand, ignored the will of Texas lawmakers and had created “race-based districts.”

The emergency appeal, which arrived on Nov. 28, apparently provoked an extended debate among the justices. At 7 p.m. on Friday, they issued an order in the case of Perry v. Perez, saying that orders issued by the San Antonio judges “are hereby stayed pending further order of the court.”

©2011 Tribune Co.

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