How the Supreme Court is messing with Texas... and the 2012 race

The high court throws a wrench into Texas politics — and the justices' decision could well determine which party controls the 113th Congress

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may well be the swing vote in early 2012 on a controversial case that could tilt the balance of power in Texas, and in the U.S. House.
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Dec. 9, 11 years to the day after the Supreme Court waded into the 2000 presidential race, ultimately deciding Bush v. Gore, the Florida recount, and the national election, the justices again threw themselves into a state fight with national political implications. This time the state is Texas, and the issue is the new congressional map drawn up by the GOP-dominated state legislature, then replaced by a federal court. What the Supreme Court decides will influence the makeup of the U.S. House — and maybe even which party controls the chamber. Here, a brief guide to the Texas redistricting mess:

What happened before the Supreme Court stepped in?

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled state legislature drew up a new electoral map to apportion Texas' state and federal congressional districts. Because Texas has a history of racial discrimination, it has to submit its redistricting maps for federal approval, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A three-judge federal panel in Washington, D.C., refused to sign off on the map without a trial, agreeing with the U.S. Justice Department that there are significant questions about whether the GOP map dilutes black and Hispanic representation. Another three-judge federal panel in San Antonio drew up a temporary electoral map to be used in the 2012 elections, while the D.C. judges weighed the legality of the Texas GOP's map.

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Does the GOP map really disenfranchise minorities?

Minority groups certainly think so. Texas' population grew by 4.2 million in the 2010 Census, boosting the Lone Star State's tally of congressional seats from 32 to 36. Some 2.8 million of the new residents are Hispanic. The court-drawn map would create more districts than the GOP plan in which minority groups outnumber whites. That would theoretically help Democrats win as many as four more seats in Congress than under the GOP plan.

What did the Supreme Court do?

In a short decision issued Friday night, at least five of the justices agreed to halt the use of the San Antonio maps, apparently agreeing with Texas state officials that the San Antonio federal judges may have overstepped their authority. The high court didn't say anything about the GOP map blocked by the D.C. court, says Karen Brooks at CultureMap Houston. "Bottom line: There are currently no legal and binding political maps for congressional or state offices."

What happens next?

The Supreme Court will hear the case on Jan. 9. But the filing period to run in the now-borderless districts opened Nov. 28 and closes Dec. 15. Those deadlines will probably have to be pushed back — as will the March primary elections for state legislators and Texas' 36 members of Congress. "It's a train wreck," one frustrated political consultant tells CultureMap. "People don't know what they're running for. People don't know who they're running against."

What are the politics here?

The Supreme Court's unexpected decision to stay the court-drawn map is a victory for Republicans. If their map wins out, the GOP is likely to capture several extra congressional seats, making it harder for Democrats to regain the House. You can bet it wasn't the Supreme Court's liberals that decided to step in, says Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic. And "you also can bet that both sides on Jan. 9 will be directing their oral argument to Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote who likely will determine the outcome of this case."

Any guesses on the outcome?

Nobody seems to have a clue. Justice Kennedy sort of ruled in favor of Hispanic voters in a 2006 redistricting case in Texas. But the stay "is an indication that at least a majority of the court believes that Texas has a serious argument," election-law expert Richard Hasen tells The Austin American-Statesman. The only sure thing, says Texas Democratic political strategist Harold Cook, is that "politicos all over the place are going to be vibrating in place, trying to figure out what this means, when in fact there is no answer to that question until the Supreme Court is good and ready to tell us."

Sources: AP, Atlantic, Austin American-Statesman, CultureMap Houston, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle, SCOTUSBlog, Washington Post

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