Breaking Down the Supreme Court's Texas Redistricting Ruling

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld Texas's controversial redistricting plan, issuing a ruling that could make it much harder to use the courts to stop racially discriminatory voting laws of all kinds. Here's what you need to know:

June 26, 2018
Map of Texas

What is the Texas redistricting case about?

The Texas redistricting case, Abbott v. Perez, is one of the decade’s longest-running and most complicated redistricting sagas, involving not one but two sets of state house and congressional maps.

The Texas Legislature passed the first set of maps in 2011 following Texas’ receipt of updated population data from the Census Bureau. However, the new maps drew almost immediate legal challenges from Latino and African-American voters. Because Texas was unable to get the maps preapproved by the federal government before the start of the 2012 election cycle (something required at the time under section 5 of Voting Rights Act), a panel of federal judges in San Antonio found itself needing to put temporary maps in place. That process itself proved to be complicated.

The Supreme Court rejected the panel’s first temporary maps, holding that the district court had been insufficiently deferential to the maps passed by the legislature and had made changes without strong enough evidence of legal defects. The panel then drew a second set of temporary maps with more limited changes. The panel stressed, however, that its maps were “preliminary and temporary” and that other changes might be needed based on the evidence at trial.

Texas used this second set of temporary maps for the 2012 elections. Texas lawmakers then decided to adopt the temporary maps on a permanent basis, which they did with minimal changes in 2013.

Meanwhile, the district court held several weeks of trial, resulting first in rulings that 2011 maps had been intentionally discriminatory and then in rulings that the 2013 maps had intentionally carried forward many of those discriminatory features.

The district court also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on some, but not all, of their claims that various districts were racial gerrymanders and/or violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to create adequate electoral opportunities for Latinos and African Americans. 
 

What claims did Texas take to the Supreme Court?

The heart of the appeal was Texas’ request for Supreme Court to review of findings it had intentionally discriminated in adoption of the 2013 maps. (Findings about the 2011 maps were not at issue.) 

Those findings are significant because had they been upheld, the district court could have used the “bail-in” of the Voting Rights Act to put Texas back under an obligation to get election laws pre-approved before putting them into effect. This is something that Texas, like most other southern states and a handful of other jurisdictions, had been required to do under other provisions of the Voting Rights Act prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby Co. v. Holder.

In addition, Texas also asked for review of findings that some state house and congressional districts were racial gerrymanders or violated the Voting Rights Act.
 

Who are the winners and losers from the Texas redistricting decision?

Texas, of course, is the big winner. Not only did it win reversal of key intentional discrimination findings, but it also prevailed on all but one claims about racial gerrymandering or violations of the Voting Rights Act.

The losers are potentially far greater. Indeed, the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision go well beyond Texas – and well beyond redistricting cases. By creating a highly deferential standard for reviewing the actions of legislatures, the Supreme Court has made it harder for those challenging not only redistricting plans but a whole host of other discriminatory voting laws, ranging from voter ID laws to cutbacks in polling place hours.

The decision also creates a significant disincentive for plaintiffs in redistricting and voting rights cases to seek temporary relief for fear that states might then try to lock in an imperfect fix.

The decision, in short, puts to bed any lingering questions about what minority voters lost when the Supreme Court gutted section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
 

Will there be any more changes to Texas’ maps this decade?

For the most part, no.

Changes will need to be made to State House District 90 in Tarrant County to address the Court’s ruling that the district is an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. However, those changes will likely impact at most two or three districts.

Other than those adjustments, no further changes will be made to the Texas maps until the next round of redistricting in 2021.
 

Does the ruling end efforts to put Texas back under preclearance?

Not necessarily. But bail-in would need to be based on the 2011 maps.

Unlike the 2013 maps, rulings about the 2011 maps were not before the Supreme Court and could potentially serve as the basis for bail-in if, that is, the plaintiffs choose to proceed with those claims.

Of course, as with the findings about the 2013 maps, the Supreme Court will ultimately have the last word.