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Texas’ legal costs in redistricting fight reach $1.4 million, records show

By Sean Collins Walsh, The Dallas Morning News –

WASHINGTON —Texas taxpayers have paid about $1.4 million in legal expenses so far in the state’s redistricting battle, records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show.

The total, which runs through Jan. 26, includes a $395,000 contract with a Chicago law firm, about $200,000 in court-related fees and travel expenses, and the earnings of state-employed attorneys and legal staff for the nearly 8,000 hours they have spent on redistricting cases.

It does not include what the state will pay former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who represented Texas before the Supreme Court last month or much of the costs related to the ongoing case in San Antonio. Invoices for those cases had not been made public when the News requested the records under the state’s open-information law.

The costs so far could be just the tip of the iceberg.

If Texas does not prevail in the ongoing case to determine temporary maps for the 2012 elections or a separate case establish permanent maps through 2020, the states could be “litigating this in the Supreme Court for years to come,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said.

Abbott, a Republican, and the cadre of the minority-advocacy organizations and Democratic politicians who are challenging the state each accuse the other side of dragging out the case and driving up costs.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money for them to file these lawsuits forcing the state of Texas to have to defend against them,” Abbott said.

His opponents say Texas has intentionally chosen the long road by picking legal fights it knows it can’t win to defend maps that weaken minority representation, which is illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Their maps are illegal; of course somebody is going to sue them,” said Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “You can’t violate civil rights and then cry when somebody holds you accountable for it.”

The battle over which maps to use for congressional and legislative elections this year and beyond remains unsettled. Texas primary elections have been delayed once, to April 3, and are almost certain to be pushed back again.

Across the country, the cost of redistricting proceedings has risen over time, because courts establish new standards with each ruling, said Columbia University law professor David Epstein.

“As the court built up these series of tests that redistricting plans had to satisfy, (states) were having to spend more and more money to meet all these tests,” he said.

Given the amount of litigation Texas has been through this cycle — two federal court trials, a Supreme Court hearing and other small cases — a multimillion-dollar price tag is to be expected, all sides agree.

The state’s opponents, though, say the costs could have been avoided through compromise.

“The decision to say, ‘Our plans are perfect, and every single challenge to them has no merit,’ was the wrong litigation strategy. They should have been sitting down to settle with us in September, not in February,” Perales said. “It was the decision of Texas to run up the bill.”

Democaratic state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer said the state’s decisions have wasted taxpayer money at a time when Republican leaders have slashed funding for education and other core programs.

“It certainly does not reconcile with their views of limited government and living within our means and no new spending,” said Martinez-Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “Hypocrisy is a small place to pay if you’re trying to preserve your political power.”

Republican state Rep. Burt Solomons, who chaired the House Redistricting Committee, said redistricting is contentious and therefore expensive.

“The groups want to continue to appeal until they get what they want and some of its starting to sound pretty greedy,” he said. “The question is how far does this go?”

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