Supreme Court Stays Court-Ordered Texas Redistricting. What Does It Mean?

Original gerrymander cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale, "Boston Gazette," March 26, 1812.

Original gerrymander cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale, “Boston Gazette,” March 26, 1812.

The case challenging redistricting in Texas, Veasey v. Abbott, has been around since 2011. Congressional districts set after the 2010 census were alleged to be discriminatory against minorities and hence illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act. Plaintiffs won, and new districts were drawn and approved by the federal district court.

But in three elections since then, plaintiffs argue that the new districts have proven still to be discriminatory. The federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ordered the districts redrawn in time for the 2018 election. The case is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court has just ruled, 5 to 4, to stay the mandated redistricting until the case is fully heard. People are wondering if this ruling telegraphs an outcome in the key Wisconsin case in which that state’s redistricting was held to be so political as to deny civil rights of the disadvantaged party’s members.

But before predicting a tsunami drowning all cases challenging political gerrymandering, consider that the reincarnated Texas case has unique properties: first, it seeks to overturn districts originally created for and approved by the federal district court five years ago. Second, it seeks a mid-term round of redistricting between censuses, an initiative sometimes disapproved in its own right. Third, it is but a 5 to 4 decision. And indeed, it is not a decision, but only a stay pending argument and decision on the appeal.

Yet although the cup is still there, it is at least half-empty. Had a majority of the Justices felt any sympathy for the minority voters being discriminated against, they could have denied the stay. The consequences would have been only the resources invested in redesigning the districts, no permanent harm to either side. A final decision should be able to be reached well before 2018 primary election filings need to occur. But as things stand, there is no doubt that the present Texas districts found to be discriminatory will still be used in 2018.

As usual, stay tuned!

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