AUSTIN, Texas — The 2020 election cycle was billed by Democrats as a sweeping referendum on former president Donald Trump and state Republican policies. After all, the country swung wildly left in the 2018 midterms.
While President Joe Biden made significant gains in some urban areas such as Tarrant and Williamson counties, Republicans for the most part held serve in the state legislature in 2020 — just in time to redraw the district maps.
Texas is now ground zero for a political rock fight that could determine the political makeup of the state legislature and the U.S. House for the next decade.
Texas, Florida and North Carolina are among the states that will gain congressional seats based on new population data from the U.S. census, a shift that could boost Republican chances of recapturing the U.S. House of Representatives from Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
The overall U.S. population stood at 331,449,281, the Census Bureau said last week, a 7.4% increase over 2010, representing the second-slowest growth of any decade in history. The release of the data was delayed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the 435 seats in the House and the votes in the Electoral College that selects the president every four years are divided among the 50 states based on population, with every state receiving at least one congressional seat.
While the GOP’s 2020 victories kept Texas firmly in the grips of Republicans, the Dems managed to sweep judicial races in districts serving Dallas, Houston and Austin. Conservative political topographers, critics say, have already tried once this legislative session to “gerrymander” the state’s appeals courts to minimize the impact of those Democratic gains.
Senate Bill 11, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would have reduced the number of appeals court districts from 14 to seven. Supporters of the bill said it would increase judicial efficiency by equalizing the workload across the different districts. Huffman also argued that consolidating the court districts would reduce the transfer of cases from one appellate district to another.
The plan would have combined Houston's First and 14th districts into a new Sixth District that would have included more conservative counties to the north and southwest of Harris County. Dallas and Austin, both largely Democratic, would have been combined into a single new Fifth District, while largely Democratic San Antonio would have been moved to a new Third District that stretches through the Rio Grande Valley.
A linked bill — SB 1529, also authored by Huffman — would have removed the ability of the new Austin district to hear cases involving the state government. Instead, it called for the creation of a single statewide appeals court dealing with state issues to keep Democratic judges from being overly influential in appeals cases related to the state of Texas.
Under SB 11, the total number of judges on the state appeals bench would have remained the same at 80. But the net effect of the proposed changes would have been to move the appeals court system further to the right.
Republicans already dominate the state's two top courts, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. However, those two courts do not always accept appeals from the lower courts.
If Democratic judges in an appeals court decide a case one way, and the higher courts decline to take up the case, that decision will stand.
Democrats, who have their own sordid history of using gerrymandering to maintain legislative control, now say they are on the other side of the issue as the minority party. State lawmakers are still reeling from a phalanx of lawsuits stemming from the 2010 redrawing of the state’s district maps.
Questions shrouding the last redistricting were only just settled in May, when the Supreme Court rejected almost all claims that Republican lawmakers in the state had drawn electoral districts to intentionally dilute minority voters’ influence — otherwise known as racial gerrymandering. The decision in Abbott v. Perez rounds out a string of defeats at the high court this term for voting-rights advocates.
A month before that ruling, the Supreme Court asserted that partisan gerrymandering should be left to states. In a 5-4 decision along traditional conservative-liberal ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan redistricting is a political question — not reviewable by federal courts — and that those courts can't judge if extreme gerrymandering violates the Constitution.
Critics of the GOP say these Supreme Court decisions have only emboldened Republicans in their attempts to hang on to power through gerrymandering. Though SB11 died on the vine, it could augur the lengths to which lawmakers are willing to traverse.
The Dems' concerns were underscored by comments made by Allen West. Earlier this year, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas used his weekly missive to the party to urge them to exclude Democrats from redrawing the state’s congressional districts during the current round of post-census redistricting.
“Since we maintained a strong majority in both the Texas House and Senate, we control this process,” West noted. “This will shape the political landscape of Texas, and other states, for the next 10 years.”
He counseled, however, that the party use its power to secure itself even more power.
“Texas Republicans control this process and must realize this strategic opportunity, and not concern themselves with ‘fairness’ to the progressive socialist left,” he wrote. “I think we are getting a lesson right now in the ruthlessness of the left. We can ill afford to be Neville Chamberlains and believe that appeasement, compromise and acquiescence to the leftists are viable courses of action.”
As noted in a two-part series (part 1, part 2) by Spectrum News in October, “In 2013, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines. The historic decision freed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.”
As a result, there is no real legal backstop If Republicans map-drawers decide to act on West’s advice.