Updated at 2:05 p.m.
In an unsigned opinion released this morning, the Supreme Court sent the hotly contested Texas redistricting dispute back to a three-judge federal court panel in the Western District of Texas for further review. That is the panel that had devised an interim set of maps for use in upcoming primaries. The Court said those court-made maps could not be used because they paid inadequate "attention" to the disputed maps earlier devised by the Texas legislature.
The ruling is something of a compromise, coming close to what the U.S. solicitor general's office suggested during oral arguments 10 days ago. Texas went to the Supreme Court hoping that it would accept the legislature's maps, even though they have not yet made it through the "preclearance" process called for by the Voting Rights Act. Minority groups in Texas claim the legislature's maps violate that act by diluting minority voting power and failing to recognize that most of the state's population growth reflected in the latest census has been among Hispanics.
The justices rejected the state's plea, though the Court said the legislature's maps should be a "starting point" for new maps that the Texas federal court panel, sitting in San Antonio, should devise. The Court stated that the Voting Rights Act "prevents a state plan from being implemented if it has not been precleared. But that does not mean that the plan is of no account or that the policy judgments it reflects can be disregarded by a district court drawing an interim plan."
The minority plaintiffs had wanted the district court panel's maps implemented as an interim solution while the preclearance process is pending. But the justices said the court-drawn maps were flawed, not only for inadequately taking the legislature's maps into account, but also because the reasoning for some of the choices the panel made was unclear.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to state that he would accept the Texas legislature's maps even though they have not been precleared, because he views the preclearance process as unconstitutional.
The decision leaves the fate of the Texas primaries, scheduled for April, unclear. Meanwhile, a district court panel in the District of Columbia held hearings on the preclearance issue this week, with a decision expected in early February.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released this statement on the decision: "The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders. As the justices point out, courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the State. The Court made clear in a strongly worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it's clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles."
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the lead plaintiffs' group, had this reaction: “This morning the Supreme Court of the United States clearly rejected the State of Texas’ position regarding the interim use of legislative maps pending the pre-clearance process. Instead the Court remanded the case back to the San Antonio Court with guidance on how to proceed. The Court was clear in its order that lower courts cannot incorporate any state maps with legal defects. It is not a stretch to say that Texas’ enacted maps are riddled with legal deficiencies and we look forward to drawing a better interim map now that we know the San Antonio court can rely on the evidence presented at trial that Texas’ maps are discriminatory both in purpose and effect.”