AUSTIN, Texas — Mexican-American lawmakers—unhappy to see the number of Latino-majority districts dropping in the Texas House—took their case to the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Republicans dominated the drawing of legislative maps during a special session late last summer. That has triggered at least five legal challenges; some, focused on the House and Senate maps, will go through state courts; others, aimed at the congressional maps, will go through the federal court system and potentially land at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, a loose alliance of lawmakers who support Latino representation, has filed challenges in both state and federal court. The group notes that 95% of growth in Texas over the last decade was fueled by the state’s communities of color. That growth was the impetus that gave Texas two new Congressional seats.
“Despite that growth and the demographic shifts, the statehouse and congressional districts adopted manipulated electoral maps to reduce the number of Latino and minority electoral opportunity districts,” according to a statement released by MALC Wednesday. “Specifically, the statehouse map reduces the number of majority Latino seats by 3 from 33 to 30 and decreases the total number of majority-minority districts from 40 to 34. Further, the two newly drawn congressional districts were both drawn with Anglo majorities—ignoring significant demographic changes across the state.”
The case before the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday is one that can be labeled the “county line” challenge. Lawmakers say that sections of the Texas House map in the Rio Grande Valley violate a section in the Texas Constitution, Article III, Sec. 26, that was drawn up in 1876.
The section, which notes how legislative districts should be drawn in the Texas House, says, in part, “Whenever a single county has sufficient population to be entitled to a Representative, such county shall be formed into a separate Representative District, and when two or more counties are required to make up the ratio of representation, such counties shall be contiguous to each other; and when any one county has more than sufficient population to be entitled to one or more representatives, such representative or representatives shall be apportioned to such county, and for any surplus of population it may be joined in a Representative District with any other contiguous county or counties.”
MALC alleges that Cameron County has been split in such a way that it violates the county line rule. The challenge, heard on Wednesday, was filed by MALC and consolidated with similar cases by Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, and former State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, who is a candidate in a Democratic run-off in House District 37.
Deputy Solicitor General Lanora Pitts, arguing on behalf of Gov. Greg Abbott and Secretary of State John Scott, said MALC and the candidates had no standing in the case because they have claimed no injury. Nor does MALC have a right to challenge the map when Texas lawmakers still have the chance to return and redraw the lines during the next legislative session.
Both sides agree the current legal challenge will not affect the 2022 election cycle.
Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is not a member of the legislature, supports the idea that lawmakers should go through the redistricting process again in the next session, Pitts said. Members of the court expressed some skepticism that Paxton’s opinion would guarantee the Texas legislature would take that action when the 88th session convenes in 2023.
If the Texas Supreme Court were to agree the lawmakers have no standing—and that lawmakers must be given the chance to address the maps—all challenges would be thrown out.
Attorneys Wallace Jefferson of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson and Sean McCaffity of Sommerman, McCaffity, Quesada & Geisler, who represented the lawmakers, argued MALC has been granted standing in past cases. The court addressed the county line challenge, brought by similar groups of lawmakers and voters, during redistricting in the 1970s and the 1980s.