Justice Dept. opposes new Texas congressional map drawn by GOP

The Department of Justice on Monday expressed its opposition to the congressional map devised by Texas Republicans, claiming it does not meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and needs to be redrawn.

Republicans in the Texas State Legislature might have overreached when they did not add any new minority-heavy districts to the new map, despite the state’s gaining four congressional seats because of its population growth, most of which came from Hispanics and African-Americans. If the courts agree with the DOJ and civil-rights groups, Democrats could pick up two to three additional House seats in the Lone Star State.

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The map will now face the scrutiny of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which will weigh arguments from lawyers from the DOJ, civil-rights groups and the state of Texas on whether the new map dilutes minority voting strength. 

“Nobody should be thinking that these lines will remain,” said Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who has been involved with the case. “There’s a good chance that there’s significant change to the congressional map. It’s a very big impact from the standpoint of looking at the prospects over the next cycle and beyond in terms of winning back the House.”

National Republicans were tight-lipped about the DOJ’s action: Both National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who leads the NRCC’s redistricting program, declined comment for this story.

Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger, one of the Republicans who drew the map, did not want to speculate about why the DOJ made its decision or if he thought the map would stand, but hinted that he thinks the administration is playing politics.

“Do I expect this process to be devoid of partisanship in Washington? Well, no, I don’t think it ever is,” said Seliger.

If the Republican map became law, the GOP would likely enjoy a 26-10 advantage in the state House delegation, up from the 23-9 edge the party has now. But a new map could give Democrats 12 or 13 seats instead.

In a released statement, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said, “Like everyone who has studied it, except [Texas GOP] Gov. [Rick] Perry and his cohorts, the Justice Department simply recognized that this map is illegal. Communities of interest across this state have been wrongly divided by the governor’s crooked lines.”

Texas has to submit its redistricting maps to the federal government because of the state’s history of racial discrimination. The DOJ is in Democratic hands for the first time during the redistricting process since the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s. Because of that, Republicans decided to go to the courts rather than just have the DOJ look at the maps, which would have been quicker and less expensive.

Two-thirds of Texas’s population growth came from Hispanics, but they didn’t gain any new seats, another legal issue that will likely be resolved by a three-judge panel in San Antonio, which wrapped up hearings on the map last week and is awaiting the D.C. District Court’s decision to move forward with its own case.

Perry helped Republicans pass the map by calling the Legislature back into special session earlier this year, though GOP officials in the state said he was not intimately involved in the map-drawing, which took place shortly before he announced his presidential run.

“I didn’t speak to him very much. They were busy doing stuff and we were showing them the map, they weren’t showing us the map,” Seliger said. “The only discussion I ever had with the governor was, could we get it done in time in one special session? And he just asked if it would it be a product that was worth bringing people back for.”

The DOJ did not say why it found the map objectionable, but Democrats and civil-rights groups say they expect that gerrymandering aimed at helping freshman Republican Reps. Francisco “Quico” Canseco and Blake Farenthold could be part of the problem. They also say the DOJ will likely object because the proportion of African-American and Hispanic districts in the state dropped from 10 out of 32 to 10 out of 36 in the new map. 

Nina Perales of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, which is fighting the Republican map, said she is “very pleased” with the DOJ’s decision.

The DOJ is set to lay out its specific concerns with the map later this week. The court will likely hear the case in late October or November. If it finds the plan objectionable, the court will send it to the three-judge panel in San Antonio.

If the D.C. court decides there are no problems with the redistricting effort, the San Antonio judges could still redraw portions of it to boost the electoral power of Hispanics in the state.