By Lisa Soronen
Abbott v. Perez is odd and unusually complicated even for a racial gerrymandering case.
In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld all but one of Texas’ 2013 congressional and state legislative districts.
The Texas Legislature’s 2013 redistricting plan codified a Texas federal district court’s second attempt at redrawing the Legislature’s 2011 plan. The Supreme Court concluded the lower court erred when it required the Texas Legislature to prove that it purged the racially discriminatory taint of the 2011 legislative-drawn plan.
A group representing minority voters challenged the Texas Legislature’s 2011 original redistricting plan, saying it discriminated against black and Hispanic voters in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act
A Texas federal district court issued a remedial redistricting plan, which the Supreme Court vacated in 2012. The Texas district court then drew a second redistricting plan, which the Texas Legislature adopted in 2013 as its redistricting plan. Meanwhile, a D.C. court refused to preclear Texas’ now abandoned 2011 legislative-redistricting plan.
The current case arose when another group sued, alleging the new districts in Texas were still racially discriminatory. After a trial, the Texas district court concluded the 2013 Legislature could not show that it had “purged the taint” of the initial discriminatory maps. The district court asked the Legislature to redraw, and Texas appealed to the Supreme Court.
According to the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the challengers, not Texas, had to prove whether the Texas Legislature had a discriminatory intent in adopting the Texas court’s second redistricting plan as its 2013 plan. The Supreme Court found that the Legislature’s direct evidence of intention—that it wanted the litigation to end as expeditiously as possible—was “understandable and proper.” While the lower court had concluded that the “strategy” of the 2013 Legislature was to “insulate [the plans] from further challenge, regardless of [the plans’] legal infirmities,” the Supreme Court found “no evidence that the Legislature’s aim was to gain acceptance of plans that it knew were unlawful.” The Supreme Court also found that circumstantial evidence “overwhelmingly” supported the conclusion the Texas Legislature lacked discriminatory intent.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the court majority had ignored “the substantial amount of evidence of Texas’ discriminatory intent.”
The Texas district court struck down four districts on alternative grounds. Three districts were struck down as diluting minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court reversed these rulings for different reasons based on the configuration of each district. But the court did conclude HD90 in Tarrant County was an impermissible racial gerrymander. In 2013 the Texas Legislature added Latino voters, not included in the court-drawn plan, to HD90 to bring the population of Latino voters over 50 percent.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and is a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.