The U.S. Supreme Court has opted out of messing with Texas, at least for now. In a unanimous, unsigned decision, the judges avoided a variety of thorny legal questions, vaguely asking for revisions to a redistricting map drawn by a panel of judges in San Antonio. At stake is the likely party alignment of four new congressional seats that were awarded to Texas after the 2010 census revealed significant, minority-driven population growth in the state. The Republican-controlled Texas state Legislature’s map all but ensured at least three of those new seats would be safely Republican, leading to 17(!) lawsuits and prompting the San Antonio judges to create a revision that would result in more likely Democratic seats.
With Nancy Pelosi’s quiet fundraising success bolstering the Democrats’ long-odds chances to take back the House (Dems would need to win 25 districts they don’t currently hold), having a shot at those four new seats in Texas could prove decisive in 2012. Some on the right are declaring modest victory after Friday’s ruling, while others on the left appear to be holding their fire until the court more directly addresses broader questions about race, congressional districting, and the Voting Rights Act’s purpose all these years later.
Commentators are generally interpreting the ruling cautiously, but have missed a larger point our own Justin Levitt, a law professor specializing in redistricting, made earlier this month when he urged the high court “not to micromanage the process.” To start from the beginning: The Texas legislature had the option to earn clearance for their map (mandated by the VRA for places like Texas with histories of egregious racial discrimination) from the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, or from a theoretically impartial panel of federal judges in D.C. that takes much longer to decide. The Supremes, in telling the San Antonio judges to defer more to the Legislature’s plan (even while criticizing both plans), has opened the door wider for more of today’s Republican-led state legislatures to opt for the slower D.C. panel instead of the DoJ — with confidence that any less-favorable interim maps created by local courts will not survive federal court, even with the added time pressure to have maps ready for the looming elections. The Republican-controlled Virginia state government, for example, has yet to submit its map for pre-clearance, and could follow this path.
In general, the window to challenge state legislatures’ maps has shrunk with Friday’s ruling, and that’s a bad thing for Democrats in the context of so many Republican statehouses.