As if Rick Perry needed another reason to dislike the federal government.
The Justice Department’s decision to oppose the redistricting plan Perry signed as Governor of Texas is raising questions over whether he and state Republicans tried to dilute the voter power of Latinos by gerrymandering them into particular districts.
DOJ’s opening serve sets the scene for a major court battle over how the lines will be drawn in the Lone Star state. Federal attorneys are expected to offer more details of their objections in a filing Tuesday and in federal court in D.C. on Wednesday.
The circumstances are certainly unusual. On one side, there’s the Obama Justice Department, the first Democratic administration to oversee Texas’ redistricting process since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. On the other side, there’s Obama’s potential Republican opponent Rick Perry, and his strong aversion to federal power.
But experts say that despite the optics of the Obama versus Perry fight, the way DOJ handled the redistricting process is routine.
“This isn’t unprecedented at all, this is the Department of Justice doing its job,” Jon Sherman, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told TPM. “The Justice Department became very politicized under Bush Jr.’s administration. This is much more reflective of what occurred during the Reagan administration and Bush Sr. administration, when the Voting Rights Act was being enforced much more vigorously.”
Because of a boom in Texas’ population, Texas will get four more members of Congress next year, bringing their number to 36 Representatives. While the increase in the Census numbers was largely due to growth in Texas’ Hispanic population, the redistricting plan didn’t provide any additional Hispanic or “opportunity” districts.
Texas Republicans led the process, with Perry siding with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and his plan to circumvent the Justice Department preclearance process. Their aggressive map — which includes 25 Republican-leaning seats and ten Democratic seats — scrapped the idea of a new Hispanic majority seat around Dallas-Fort Worth.
“Nobody should be thinking that these lines will remain,” Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle told The Hill. “There’s a good chance that there’s significant change to the congressional map. It’s a very big impact from the standpoint of looking at the prospects over the next cycle and beyond in terms of winning back the House.”
Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan Law School professor who was the number two official in the Civil Rights Division until last month, told Roll Call this could be the start of a long process, including discovery and questioning under oath. Problem is, candidates can start filing for office in early November in Texas, which might mean the Texas legislature would have to move the primary timetable back.
“Once a state decides to go to court, it loses control over the schedule,” Bagenstos added. “The rules of federal litigation kicks in.”
Democrats were quick to take their victory lap over the Justice Department’s decision.
“It’s a shame that Governor Perry and his Republican colleagues are more interested in protecting their own political futures than the voting rights of their constituents,” said Texas Democratic Party spokewoman Rebecca Acuna.
“The Perry-signed state house and congressional maps attempted to diminish the political voice of the communities responsible for the state’s population growth. The maps are a desperate attempt by Republicans to latch on to power by any means necessary,” Acuna said.
The Perry campaign did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment.
“Like everyone who has studied it, except Governor Perry and his cohorts, the Justice Department simply recognized that this map is illegal,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas). “Communities of interest across this State have been wrongly divided by the Governor’s crooked lines. Whether or not proposed CD 35, which contains the largest number of my current constituents, is specifically declared illegal, I believe that it may well be changed by necessary corrections to adjacent congressional districts.”
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