Human Rights

Supreme Court and Justice Department on Collision Course Over Texas Redistricting and Minorities' Voting Rights

The Roberts court may insert itself into partisan politics to a degree not seen since the 2000 Florida recount, which installed George W. Bush as president.

The Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice are on a political collision course over how Texas — and possibly other states — are drawing the congressional district lines affecting 2012 House races across the country, raising the prospect that the Roberts court will insert itself into partisan politics to a degree not seen since the 2000 Florida recount, which installed George W. Bush as the nation’s 43rd president.

The Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of several Texas congressional redistricting maps this Friday, one favoring Republicans and another Democrats. It set a court date for Jan. 9, 2012. Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s case against the maps drawn by Texas Republicans is headed toward a trial in another D.C. federal courtroom in January.

On Tuesday night in Texas, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech defending the Obama administration’s commitment to voting rights. Speaking at the presidential library of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act that gave the DOJ power to take states to court to reject racially biased redistricting, Holder called on “our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, achieve success by appealing to more voters.”

Holder’s speech referred not only to the redistricting fights but also to laws passed in more than a dozen states since 2010 to toughen voter ID laws, a move complicating voting for students, minorities, and the elderly — all key Obama supporters in 2008.

Civil Rights groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, have issued reports detailing how newly restrictive voting rules — almost all proposed and adopted by GOP state lawmakers — could deter or block as many as 5 million people from voting for president in 2012.

But the big fear is what the Supreme Court will do to the Voting Rights Act, because if the high court revises the act, or weakens the legal basis for the DOJ to take states to court over districts that dilute minority representation, it will be changing the nation’s political landscape in dramatic ways in a presidential election year.

“Power protects power,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, which works to elect Democrats and expand minority representation in Texas. “The first thing that the Republicans did after winning majorities in many states in 2010 was consolidate their power. They know all about the demographic changes, with Anglos becoming a lower percentage of the electorate. They are trying to push the future forward.”

The politics behind the redistricting fight in Texas are bare-knuckled. Many Democrats who support the San Antonio District Court’s decision, such as various legal defense funds for minority voters, say the Texas Republicans have been dragging their feet to complicate their dealings with the DOJ in a deliberate attempt to paint the Justice Department as the "bad guy" and create an "emergency" situation requiring Supreme Court intervention. In short, they are betting the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Republicans, or more so than the lower federal court hearing the DOJ’s Texas case.

According to Angle, Texas’ Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, has been positioning himself and the case as the “spear tip” in a nationwide attempt to undermine the Voting Rights Act, including the redistricting provisions. There are many scenarios for what the Supreme Court could do, but any watering down of the Voting Rights Act would serve Republicans in many states where redistricting fights are ongoing in state or federal court, Angle said, because there would be less incentive to follow the law. Or given the approaching 2012 primary season, courts could simply rule that states had to implement highly partisan maps, because it was too late to do anything else.

“They could take a chunk out of it, or they could take a piece,” Angle said, speaking of the Supreme Court review. “And that kicks you in the teeth in a state like Texas.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).
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