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Justice Department sues Texas over state redistricting maps, citing discrimination against Latinos

US Attorney General Merrick GarlandAndrew Harnik/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has sued Texas for the second time in a month over voting-related concerns, this time alleging that Republican state lawmakers discriminated against Latinos and other minorities when they approved new congressional and state legislative districts that increased the power of white voters.

Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement on Monday marked the department’s first major legal action on redistricting. It comes at a time when the US House is narrowly controlled by Democrats, many GOP-controlled state legislatures are tightening voting restrictions, and both parties are trying to draw maps to their own advantage ahead of the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election.

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While the Supreme Court has declined to put limits on partisan gerrymandering, it is illegal to draw lines that unfairly disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities.

“This is not the first time Texas has acted to minimize the voting rights of its minority citizens. Decade after decade, Texas has enacted redistricting plans that violate the Voting Rights Act,” Justice said in the lawsuit filed in US District Court for the Western Division of Texas. “In enacting its 2021 Congressional and House plans, the State has again diluted the voting strength of minority Texans.”

The lawsuit asks the court to bar Texas from holding elections under the redrawn districts and to instruct lawmakers to devise new maps that comply with federal law.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton posted a tweet calling the lawsuit "absurd" and "the Biden Administration's latest ploy to control Texas voters."

"I am confident that our legislature's redistricting decisions will be proven lawful, and this preposterous attempt to sway democracy will fail," he wrote.

Texas GOP leaders have previously said the redrawn maps were approved by lawyers who determined the districts complied with voting rights laws.

But the maps have also drawn two legal challenges from left-leaning advocacy groups, including one filed last month by a group affiliated with Eric Holder Jr., who led Justice in the Obama administration.

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Liberals, frustrated that Republicans in Congress have blocked Democratic bills to expand voting-rights safeguards, have pressed Garland to be more aggressive in intervening against attempts from GOP-led states to restrict voting or draw maps that minimize the influence of minority voters.

In June, Justice sued Georgia over new statewide voting measures that federal authorities allege purposefully discriminate against Black Americans.

And last month, the department sued Texas over a separate law that federal officials say would disenfranchise eligible voters, including older Americans and people with disabilities, by banning 24-hour and drive-through voting and giving partisan poll watchers more access.

Texas lawmakers approved the new voting districts in October after a redistricting process led by Republicans, who control the state Senate and House.

The 2020 census showed that Texas' population had grown dramatically over the past decade, by nearly 4 million people. Most of that growth was among minority populations, with White Texans accounting for only about 5 percent of the increase.

The growth means the number of Texan seats in the US House will expand from 36 to 38 — the only state to gain two seats. Rather than reflect the surging Latino voting strength in the state, Justice argues, the new districts would unfairly and illegally dilute their representation.

Texas Republicans didn't try to draw lines to immediately take seats away from Democrats. Instead, analysts say, they redrew nearly a dozen districts that could have become more competitive over the next decade to ensure they stay solidly red. The result is that even as those areas of Texas become more demographically diverse, the changes likely won't be reflected in elections.

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"The Justice Department will not stand idly by in the face of unlawful attempts to restrict access to the ballot," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said. She accused Texas lawmakers, who developed and approved the redistricting plan in less than three months, of using a rushed legislative process that minimized opportunities for public input.

Michael Li, an elections expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, called the Texas redistricting maps racially discriminatory and said the federal intervention would be a welcome step for communities of color.

But he said the case could prove difficult for the Justice Department given the shift toward more conservative benches in the federal judiciary over the past decade.

"The courts have done a lot of damage to voting-rights laws," Li said.

For decades, Democratic administrations have sued Texas over how the state handles voting issues, from redistricting to voter access.

Their chances of success were weakened by a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that effectively ended the requirement that Texas and other states with a history of voter discrimination get preapproval from the Justice Department for new voting district maps drawn after every census.

In his news conference on Monday, Garland called on Congress to reinstate the department's preclearance authority. If Justice still had that legal tool, he said, "we would likely not be here today announcing this complaint."

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Li said the Supreme Court's decision in 2019 that partisan gerrymandering is a political question, outside the jurisdiction of federal courts, also complicated matters for Democrats.

The ruling "gave Republicans an excuse that, 'It's just politics, not race,' even though most of their decisions adversely affect Blacks, Latinos and Asians," he said.