Politics

Federal court hears first challenge to Texas’ redrawn political maps

The lawsuit alleges a GOP-drawn map of Texas Senate districts dilutes the voting power of minorities in North Texas. Attorneys say it could be a preview of what’s to come in the larger legal battle facing the state’s controversial new political boundaries.

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama will hear a challenge Tuesday to the redrawn political boundaries for Fort Worth's state Senate District 10.

Updated Jan. 26, 2022 at 8:47 a.m. CT

Two of Tarrant County's local elected officials testified Tuesday that new political maps passed by Republicans in the Texas Legislature will dilute the voting power of minority voters in a Fort Worth state senate district.

The testimony from Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio Leon and County Commissioner Charles Brooks came during a hearing in El Paso in one of several challenges against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott after the Republican-led Texas Legislature redrew political maps following the 2020 U.S. Census.

And although this week's hearing is limited in scope — it pertains to one state senate district in North Texas — attorneys said testimony could foretell what is to come later this year when a slew of other redistricting challenges are heard in a consolidated redistricting lawsuit.

Federal Judges David Guaderrama, Jerry E. Smith and Jeffrey V. Brown are the three judges presiding over the case. The challenge addresses the redrawn political boundaries for Fort Worth's state Senate District 10, currently represented by Democrat Beverly Powell. Powell and six Tarrant County residents filed the lawsuit in early November, alleging the new map purposely dilutes the voting strength of minorities.

"In each decennial redistricting cycle in modern history, Texas has enacted plans that federal courts have ruled to be racially discriminatory in intent and/or effect. Like clockwork, Texas has done so again," the lawsuit asserts. "Remarkably, Texas has enacted the same racially discriminatory scheme to dismantle Senate District 10."

AP Graphic
Redrawn political maps for the Dallas area show how one party can protect its incumbents and reduce competition through the once-a-decade redistricting process.

During testimony Tuesday in El Paso, De Leon said much of his Precinct 5 was originally in Senate District 10 before redistricting. But now, the Senate District has been split in two. This has shifted some Black and Hispanic voters — formerly in the northern part of his precinct — into a Senate District with more Anglo voters. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic voters in the southern part of his precinct are grouped with rural white voters.

“They’ll have zero impact” on upcoming races, DeLeon said.

Brooks, who was first elected as a county commissioner in 2004, said redistricting has grouped Black and Hispanic voters with Anglo residents who do not share the same values.

“Their voices will be greatly diminished to the point of not being heard and effective in getting their points of view across,” he said, adding that his precinct is about 60% Democrats and 40% Republicans. But Tarrant County generally tends to vote Republican, he said.

This is just one of multiple lawsuits filed last year after the Texas Legislature redrew district boundaries for the Texas House and Senate, State Board of Education and U.S. Congressional seats. The plaintiffs in those lawsuits include several individuals and organizations including the League of United Latin American Citizens, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and La Union del Pueblo Entero, among others. The Biden administration's Department of Justice filed an additional lawsuit in December.

The DOJ's allegations against the state are similar: Republicans intentionally drew boundaries to weaken the strength of minority voters. That was despite non-White Texans accounting for more than 90 % of the state's growth. The cases have been consolidated and will be heard in El Paso in September 2022.

Attorney Mark P. Gaber, who represents Powell and the other plaintiffs, said their case is scheduled ahead of the others this fall because they asked the judge to make a decision in time for the November 2022 General Election.

"The claims are that the drawing of the senate district was intentionally discriminatory by cracking apart Black and Latino voters. What we are asking the court to do is enter relief in time to affect the November 22 election," he said. "So, we would put the district that exists now back in place and that would require some changes to the surrounding districts as well."

Graber said this week's hearing could foreshadow what to expect later this year.

"I imagine for one thing there is going to be testimony and that doesn't go away. And that could be relevant to other claims as well," he said. "We'll probably get some legal ruling from the court that will affect issues beyond Senate District 10 in terms of what the court determines are the facts of law."

The Lone Star Project, a pro-Democrat group aimed at unseating Texas Republicans, called Powell's lawsuit a "a linchpin case that will determine whether the Voting Rights Act" can still protect voters from the actions of Texas Republicans.

"Texas media nor anyone else should underplay or misunderstand the importance of the suit filed today by Senator Powell and others," the group said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. "They are battling for voting rights in Tarrant County, in all of Texas, and everywhere in our country."

Attorneys for the state of Texas asked Brooks and DeLeon is they supported Powell and whether they had any association with the Lone Star Project. Both said they had in the past. The state's attorneys also drove home the point that Senate District 10 has been competitive in recent elections. Since 2004 Republicans and Democrats have both won the seat twice.

Aaron Montes of KTEP El Paso also contributed to this reporting

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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