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DOJ challenges Texas’ new congressional, House seat maps

Friday saw the end of the first act in Texas’ fight over new district maps drawn by the State Legislature earlier this year. Today, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the maps for the first time, opening in the next chapter of this epic courtroom drama.

Federal judges in Washington have yet to schedule a trial date for this next stage — they’re expected to do so Wednesday — but they’ll hear arguments from the Justice Department as to particular concerns.

Monday afternoon, the department signed off on Texas’ new Board of Education and the state Senate maps, but it wouldn’t so so for the state’s Congressional and state House plans:

Defendants deny that the proposed House plan, as compared with the benchmark, maintains or increases the ability of minority voters to elect their candidate of choice.

The filing uses similar language for the Congressional map, and while that news will be encouraging to groups that challenged the maps in Texas, the Justice Department said it simply doesn’t have the information it needs to reach a conclusion on either of those maps. (Read the full filing below.)

The Justice Department will offer more details on its questions for the state on Tuesday, according to the Texas politics blog Quorum Report.

Last week a three-judge panel in San Antonio heard closing arguments from a coalition of groups arguing the new districts cheat minority groups out of the equal representation they’re guaranteed under the law. Lawyers for the State of Texas begged to disagree, as the San Antonio Express-News reported, calling the suits an “effort to fix the results of an election.”

Over the last two weeks, the quick trial often heated up, as lawmakers and their staffs leveled or deflected charges of racism:

“Let’s not pretend the state didn’t know the racial implications of what they were doing,” said Gerry Hebert, a longtime civil rights lawyer representing state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.

“They knew it at every click of the mouse in drawing the map,” Hebert said.

Those charges of racism could reach all the way to Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, if the courts do decide the GOP-drawn map cuts off minorities communities’ representation.

Texas’ maps must wind through a complex legal system because they face two separate challenges: first because a handful of groups sued over the maps in federal court, and second, because Texas is one of a handful of states with discriminatory histories, which must have any changes to its maps “pre-cleared” at the federal level.

The judges in Texas have suggested they’ll hold off on making their decision until they hear a ruling from the panel in D.C., and as the Los Angeles Times reported, that process puts every potential candidate in the state under a tight deadline:

[Dallas attorney Michael] Li said the rulings could force Texas state election officials to delay the November elections, including the presidential primary, which might affect Perry’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Given the filing deadlines, that makes it a little hairy,” Li said.

As Li reported on his blog covering the redistricting process, the NAACP recently weighed in on the case, as well, asking the Justice Department to oppose the maps.

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