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Texas redistricting battles warming up

While the new-look Texas Legislature has grabbed the spotlight with an unprecedented attack on state spending, taking place behind the scenes and on smaller stages is a familiar struggle over redistricting.

Politico reported Monday on a conflict between U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) and Joe Barton (R-Ennis) over how many of Texas’ four new congressional districts should be drawn to favor Republicans, and how many should favor Democrats. Texas’ population gain in the past decade has been heavily driven by growth in the number of Hispanic residents, who tend to vote Democratic. Meanwhile, the GOP tsunami last fall swept Republicans Ciro Rodriguez (R-San Antonio) and Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi) into districts that would probably require some tinkering in order to be considered ‘safe’ for the incumbents in more typical election years.

According to Politico, Smith is taking a more pragmatic approach to map-drawing, attempting to make deals to create two GOP-leaning districts and two Democratic-leaning districts. On the other hand, Barton is pushing for either three or four of the new districts to favor Republicans.

An anonymous “Republican insider” told Politico that Texas Republicans are taking Smith’s side of the argument — though anonymous Democratic sources said Barton is getting support from Gov. Rick Perry.

The Democrats also said, according to the story: “Perry has also considered the idea of skipping Justice Department review of the new congressional map and going directly to federal court for approval, Democrats added. Nearly all Voting Rights Act-mandated reviews are first conducted by the Justice Department, although Perry wants to avoid that step with the [Barack] Obama administration.”

If that is indeed Perry’s plan, it might not work. An expert on Voting Rights Act preclearance told the Texas Independent in late March that the state would probably not find any extra sympathy in front of a three-judge D.C. panel than it would from Department of Justice staffers.

“Even if they go to federal court, they would have to face off with DOJ,” said election law attorney J. Gerald Hebert, who is executive director of the Campaign Legal Center.

“The legal standard used by the federal court is identical to the legal standard used by the DOJ,” he said.

Additionally, “the D.C. court is very deferential to the Justice Department, by and large,” Hebert said. “Because the DOJ reviews about 20,000 voting changes a year, and the D.C. court gets very few a year, they rely very heavily on the expertise of the DOJ.”

“I’ve often found that when a challenge is in the D.C. court, the court looks to the Justice Department for a great deal of guidance,” he said.

Today, the Rio Grande Guardian reported that the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) is suing Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry in a South Texas court, alleging “that the population numbers being used for the State’s 2011 redistricting process “severely undercounts Latinos.””

According to MALC’s petition, posted by the Guardian, “The creation of redistricting plans for Texas election districts using the defective 2010 census data discriminates against Latino voters and is not legally enforceable.”

MALC’s attorney Jose Garza told the Guardian, “There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps, tens of thousands for sure, of individuals who were simply not counted. The Legislature is making no accommodation for that. They are using 2010 Census as if it were perfect.”

As the Texas Tribune notes, attorney Mike Hull – whose clients include the conservative Texans for Lawsuit Reform — filed a suit earlier this year in a North Texas court, “saying in that filing that non-citizens shouldn’t be counted in drawing political districts and saying that their inclusion dilutes the relative voting strength of some citizens.”

According to the Tribune, “The suits, at this point, are mainly about where the inevitable redistricting lawsuits will be heard. MALC’s going for South Texas. Hull, who hasn’t named his actual clients, is going for North.”

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