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Supreme Court Upholds Texas' Congressional, State Legislative Maps


A bitterly divided Supreme Court handed down its decision in a redistricting case today. It largely upheld the redrawing of congressional and state legislative maps in Texas. The ruling reversed lower court findings that an intent to discriminate against African-American and Hispanic voters tainted the way the maps were drawn. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Texas decision comes in a case that has lasted so long and is so complicated that even election experts find it daunting to discuss.

RICHARD PILDES: This was just such a mess.

JUSTIN LEVITT: It was a mess (laughter). There is no question it was a mess.

TOTENBERG: That's NYU law professor Richard Pildes followed by Loyola professor Justin Levitt. It's a mess because it has pingponged back and forth between two separate three-judge federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The bottom line, though, is that even though the lower court ruled districts in and around Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio had been drawn to minimize minority voting power, the Supreme Court only agreed about one state legislative district. Indeed, Republican Governor Greg Abbott gleefully tweeted today, our legislative maps are legal; Democrats lost their redistricting and voter ID claims. If today's ruling were just about Texas, it would be important but not huge. The 5 to 4 decision, however, could have major repercussions.

Five years ago, the Supreme Court, by a similar 5 to 4 split, struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Back then, Chief Justice John Roberts downplayed the effect of that decision, noting that there are many other provisions of the law that give minority voters the right to sue if their voting rights are minimized. But election expert Rick Hasen of UC Irvine says those promises ring hollow after today's decision.

RICK HASEN: The court today seemed to minimize the chances that these remedies are going to be effective in future cases.

TOTENBERG: Calling the decision bold and audacious, Hasen says it will undoubtedly make voter suppression worse for minorities. And he says the language of the decision would seem to make it far more difficult to punish a recalcitrant state by putting it back under federal supervision for the next decade, a provision left intact by the Supreme Court five years ago.

HASEN: This decision is going to make it very, very difficult to put any state back under federal pre-clearance by setting a standard that puts a thumb on the scale that favors states by saying, you have to presume the good faith of the legislature.

TOTENBERG: Professor Levitt agrees.

LEVITT: What any other state can take from today's decision is that if I intend to discriminate, a court may nip and tuck a bit. But they're not going to undo what I've done wholesale.

TOTENBERG: Today's decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, overruled the lower court's findings that some districts were drawn to suppress the minority vote. Alito said the lower court used the wrong standard in evaluating the districts, that it should have presumed the state acted in good faith rather than assuming that the new district lines were an extension of previous racial gerrymandering. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch concurred in the decision but noted that in their view, the Voting Rights Act does not apply at all to redistricting.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a 46-page dissent lambasting the majority on behalf of the court's four liberals. The majority's disregard for both precedent and fact comes at a serious cost to our democracy, she said. It means that after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas will continue to be underrepresented in the political process. Even though minorities now constitute a majority of the Texas population, she said, minority voters will cast their ballots this year and in 2020 knowing that, quote, "their vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will."

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.