Blog Index
The journal that this archive was targeting has been deleted. Please update your configuration.

U.S. Supreme Court rules Texas lawmakers did not intentionally discriminate in drawing political maps

                By Alexa Ura

The Texas Tribune

                June 25, 2018

                Extinguishing the possibility that Texas could be placed back under federal electoral supervision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday pushed aside claims that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they enacted the state's congressional and state House maps. 

In a 5-4 vote, the high court upheld 10 of 11 congressional and state House districts that the maps’ challengers said intentionally undercut the voting power of Hispanic and black voters, oftentimes to keep white incumbents in office. The Supreme Court found that the evidence was "plainly insufficient" to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in "bad faith” when it enacted the districts. 

The one exception was Fort Worth-based House District 90, which is occupied by Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero and was deemed an impermissible racial gerrymander because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in deciding its boundaries. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which keeps all but one of the state's districts in place through the end of the decade, is a major blow to the maps’ challengers — civil rights groups, voters of color and Democratic lawmakers — who have been fighting the Republican-controlled Legislature’s adjustment of district boundaries since 2011. 

That year, Republicans were forced to grapple with how to redraw the state’s political maps to account for 2010 U.S. census numbers that showed that the state’s demographics were shifting against them. Most of the state’s growth was attributable to people of color, particularly Hispanics, who are more likely to vote for Democrats. Still, lawmakers managed to redraw electoral maps to add more Republican-friendly districts, particularly in Congress where Republicans gained three surefire districts and Democrats gained just one. 

The maps lawmakers first drew in 2011 to account for that growth never actually went into effect because they were immediately tied up in litigation over claims they were unfair to voters of color. 

The current litigation focused instead on Republicans’ actions in 2013, when lawmakers adopted temporary maps that a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio had ordered up in 2012 amid legal wrangling over the 2011 maps. 

The San Antonio panel of judges at the time had warned that the interim maps — based largely on the state's original map-drawing — were meant to be temporary and that districts could still be subject to legal scrutiny. After lawmakers adopted those maps, the lower court ruled that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in their 2011 maps and that the 2013 maps were tainted by that same discrimination in places where district boundaries were left unchanged. 

But on Monday, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court sided with the state’s lawyers who had argued that they could not have discriminated against voters of color in 2013 because they simply “embraced” maps that the lower court had deemed were okay. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito echoed conservatives’ remarks during oral arguments that state lawmakers had earned the presumption of good faith when they leaned on the map the lower court approved, which “gave the Legislature a sound basis” for believing that the maps were legally sound. Alito pointed to the lower court’s “careful analysis” of legal claims at play and “detailed examination” of individual districts, some of which were modified. 

“Its work was anything but slapdash,” Alito wrote. “All these facts gave the Legislature good reason to believe that the court-approved interim plans were legally sound.” 

HD 90, which the high court upheld as a racial gerrymander, was virtually the only district that lawmakers significantly readjusted in 2013. 

Alito also said the lower court “committed a fundamental legal error” when it held the 2013 Legislature liable for not curing any “unlawful intent” behind the 2011 maps. 

Even if the lower court found the 2013 Legislature acted with discriminatory intent, “the problem is that, in making that finding, it relied overwhelmingly on what it perceived to be the 2013 Legislature’s duty to show that it had purged the bad intent of its predecessor,” Alito noted. 

Joined by the court’s three other liberal justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor denounced the majority’s opinion as a “disregard of both precedent and fact” in light of the “undeniable proof of intentional discrimination” against voters of color. 

“Those voters must return to the polls in 2018 and 2020 with the knowledge that their ability to exercise meaningfully their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will,” Sotomayor wrote. “The fundamental right to vote is too precious to be disregarded in this manner.” 

In siding with the state, the Supreme Court tossed out claims of intentional vote dilution in state House districts in Nueces County and Bell County, as well as claims that Hispanic voters were “packed” into Dallas County districts to minimize their influence in surrounding districts. The high court also rejected challenges to Congressional District 27 — where the lower court said lawmakers diluted the votes of Hispanics in Nueces County — and Congressional District 35, which the lower court flagged as an impermissible racial gerrymander. 

But perhaps most significant on the voting rights front was the Supreme Court’s ruling that the state could be not be held liable for intentional discrimination of Hispanic and black voters. 

The Texas redistricting case was largely seen as a possible test case for the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the portion of the law that for decades required Texas and other states and localities to obtain the federal government’s permission to change their election laws, a safeguard for voters of color called preclearance. The Supreme Court wiped clean the list in 2013 and lifted federal oversight for Texas and other jurisdictions, noting that conditions for voters of color had "dramatically improved."


But the court left open the possibility that future, purposeful discrimination could mean a return to preclearance. And the lower court’s finding of intentional discrimination in the Texas redistricting case was key to efforts by advocates for voters of color to persuade the courts to put Texas back under federal oversight of its election laws.

After years of litigation, Monday’s loss in the redistricting case — coupled with failed efforts to challenge the state’s voter identification law on discriminatory grounds — nixes the possibility that the state will be placed back under preclearance.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office defended the maps in court, praised the ruling as a win for Texans who want the “power to govern themselves.”


"The court rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts, and rejected the misguided efforts by unelected federal judges to wrest control of Texas elections from Texas voters,” he said in a statement.


For those challenging the maps, the ruling is a disappointing outcome to a seven-year-long legal fight that will deny voters of color fair representation.


“It’s difficult to reconcile this ruling with the factual findings of the court below — that voters of color were intentionally packed and cracked — and the lived experience of our clients,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who represented some of the map challengers. “Unfortunately, most voters in Texas will have to wait until the next redistricting process to get chance to have fair districts and the relief they deserve.”


                "U.S. Supreme Court rules Texas lawmakers did not intentionally discriminate in drawing political maps" was first published at by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Changing one Texas election watch list for another


                By Ross Ramsey

Texas Tribune

                May 25, 2018

 Election phases can be like shampoo instructions: Lather, rinse, repeat.

Tuesday’s primary runoffs set the table for November’s general elections and also the names on the ballot in the relatively small number of districts where a Democrat could overturn a Republican or vice-versa.

Some contests are over now. In Cameron County, Alex Dominguez, a former county commissioner, upset incumbent state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville. With no Republican on the ballot, that effectively made Dominguez a future state representative.

But incumbents in districts with the potential to flip from one party to another — state Reps. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, and Paul Workman, R-Austin, to name two — now know whom they’ll face in November. Those incumbents are on political target lists — districts where the state’s legendary redistricting maps just aren’t strong enough to protect parties the mapmakers hoped to protect.

Even a great partisan map has its weak spots. Neave’s district was drawn for Republicans, but political erosion there made it possible for her to wrestle it away in the 2016 elections. Now she’s defending, and on Tuesday, Republican voters nominated business owner Deanna Metzger for the job. Greg Abbott beat Wendy Davis in that district in 2014. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in 2016, while Neave was winning her first term.

Though it’s on the Democratic target map, the Workman district is more partisan, in favor of the Republicans. Trump edged Clinton two years ago, and Abbott won handily. Like Neave, the incumbent found his November opponent in the runoff results; Workman will face real estate agent Vikki Goodwin.

Most Texas Senate races were set in the first round of the primaries in March. But in Houston, attorney Rita Lucido won a Tuesday runoff and the right to challenge state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in November. It’s a fairly reliable Republican district, and a couple of other Republicans in the Texas Senate are probably in greater danger in the general election. However, Trump’s narrow win — less than a percentage point — and the district’s changing demographics have made optimists of some Democrats.

Three Republican congressional incumbents hold seats on Democratic wish lists and found out on Tuesday whom they will face. The most vulnerable, by the numbers, is U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, in the 23rd Congressional District. He’ll face Gina Ortiz Jones, who won easily on Tuesday, in a district where the average statewide Republican candidate won by just over 1 percentage point in 2016. It’s a true swing district.

In Dallas’ 32nd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions will face Colin Allred who, like Ortiz Jones, handily won his runoff this week. Clinton beat Trump there by less than 2 percentage points in 2016; Abbott trounced Davis by 16 percentage points in 2014 in that district. It’s a tougher challenge, at least on paper, but the Democrats are hopeful that the president will have a traditionally dismal mid-term election.

And in Houston’s 7th Congressional District, Democratic Party favorite Lizzie Pannill Fletcher dispatched Laura Moser on Tuesday, setting up a challenge to U.S. Rep. John Culberson. He’s the third of the three Texas Republicans whose voters switched sides in 2016, favoring both their Republican incumbent in Congress and the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, in the top race. But it’s generally red ground; Abbott defeated Davis in Culberson’s district by almost 22 percentage points — a little better than his statewide average.

The big setup on election night, of course, was the race for governor. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez skipped past Houston entrepreneur Andrew White, setting up a general election that pits a Democrat from the state’s biggest reliable Democratic county against an incumbent governor with a record-setting $43 million-plus campaign account. If you think of the state as a political district, think of a red one. In 2014, the average Republican running statewide beat the average Democrat by 22 percentage points; in 2016, the Republican advantage was 14 percentage points.

Even against that election history, the Valdez campaign could be advantageous to downballot Democrats. She’s well known in Dallas, where the Democrats have probably their best chances at winning back some legislative and congressional seats that belong to Republicans. And her candidacy could, if things go well, energize Hispanics — the fastest-growing group in the state’s population.


                This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

                The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Analysis: The next Texas House speaker will be chosen by greenhorns

                By Ross Ramsey

                May 9, 2018

The coming race for speaker of the Texas House will be decided by novices.

Most of the 150 members of the House — more than two-thirds, in fact — have never elected a new speaker. And only a half dozen of them were around the last time the race for speaker didn’t feature an incumbent.

They’ll all be experts in just a few months. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, announced last October that he won’t seek a sixth term. Four members have officially joined the race to succeed him. More legislators are exploring the possibility, feeling out their colleagues — the voters — for signs of support before they jump in.

The last open race came after the 1991 session, when Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, decided not to run again. State Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, won a race featuring several chairmen of Lewis’ powerful committees — Appropriations, Redistricting, State Affairs, Ways & Means and Transportation.

Laney, like Lewis and now Straus, served five terms in the job, losing it after Republicans took the House majority in the 2002 elections. Laney’s successor, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was a three-term speaker who was upended by a bipartisan group of representatives unhappy with his governing style. There was a quick period of uncertainty in that 2009 election — after Straus had an apparent majority but before it was certain — in which other House members’ names were suggested to replace Craddick. But Straus’ support held, and it never became a free-for-all.

This time, it’s definitely a free-for-all.

The last open race — the one Laney won — was a test of loyalties and friendships and political power that, like what’s going on today, was new to most members of the House. But in that earlier case, there were 34 veteran legislators who’d been through an open race for speaker before.

This time, only six members — Craddick; Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston; John Smithee, R-Amarillo; René Oliveira, D-Brownsville; and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston — have seen a competitive open race for speaker.

A supermajority — 102 members — have never been through a real race at all, having taken their seats in the House after Straus was first elected in 2009. Straus was challenged a couple of times but never seriously threatened. The last time most House members went through something like this — a race in which the contestants know each of their voters by name and those voters’ preferences by heart — was probably in a race for class president in high school.

What they’re in for is the rawest kind of race, one in which the voters are acting on what will be best for themselves and their constituents, and one in which the candidates are barred by law from promising any rewards for support. Some of the race is visible: The public knows that the names of the four candidates who’ve filed papers are Phil King, R-Weatherford; John Zerwas, R-Richmond; Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound; and Eric Johnson, D-Dallas.

A lot of it is invisible. For instance: exactly which members are quietly poking around, deciding whether to file, is unknown. The conversations between members are private — so private, in fact, that at one point in the last open race, a reasonably well-sourced reporter could see that the names of members pledged to vote for Laney, plus the number supporting Jim Rudd, D-Brownfield, or David Cain, D-Dallas, added up to more than 150.

The two-timers were so convincing that top members of Rudd’s team didn’t believe Laney had won until they saw his list of signatures. It’s a high-stakes game of liar’s poker — a dangerous adventure for 144 tenderfeet.

                 This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at   The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.



The Texas Senate’s Republican supermajority, on the bubble

                By Ross Ramsey

                April 20, 2018             

This isn’t necessarily about something that is going to happen when the 86th Texas Legislature convenes next January. But it could happen, and it’s a great peek into how political chess works. 

Texas Republicans have a 20-11 advantage in the state Senate. That’s just enough, under current Senate rules, to proceed with debate on bills even when all 11 Democrats are in opposition. That situation is the setup for the November election and for the legislative session that follows. 

If you’re with the Republicans, you’re hoping for the status quo — an election where none of the Republican seats on the ballot ends up in the hands of a Democrat. One in particular — Konni Burton of Colleyville — represents a district that, in a bad year for Republicans, could conceivably be won by a Democrat. 

If you’re with the Democrats, you’re looking at that same seat, hoping that Beverly Powell, their nominee, will become the district’s next senator. 

There’s a lot more to this than a local election, and it goes back to those rules. It takes approval from three-fifths of the senators in attendance to bring up a piece of legislation for debate. Not to pass it, just to debate it. It used to be two-thirds, but Republicans, who were short of that mark, changed the rules to three-fifths. When everyone is present, that’s 19 senators. 

That’s the setup for this strategy session. 

Say, for the sake of argument, that the Democrats win a seat. It could be Burton’s. They’re also targeting two other Republican senators, with a bit longer odds: Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and Joan Huffman of Houston. 

A one-seat pickup would leave the Democrats one vote short of the number needed to force debate. It would also put them in position, if they could hold their own folks together, to block debate by luring one Republican to their side. 

Another way to put it: Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would have any wiggle room — a generally rotten prospect for a group since it empowers any one member to hold an issue hostage by saying, “Do it my way or lose my vote.”

If the Democrats were to win more than one seat now held by Republicans, the Texas Senate would be back in the position it was in for years — when nobody could get an issue to the floor without brokering enough of a compromise to convince a supermajority that the issue is worth hearing.

That’s been used to keep all kinds of things — not all of them partisan, by the way — from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. For a moment, think like one of the swamp creatures; sometimes, it’s safer not to vote on something controversial than it is to take a stand. The three-fifths rule provides a way to either work on a compromise or just walk away without any political bruises. 

One needn’t agree with that to appreciate its political value. 

But even a big Democratic day in November could leave crafty Republicans with some breathing room. Two Democratic senators who aren’t on the ballot this year — Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Carlos Uresti of San Antonio — are contemplating resignation. 

Garcia won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in a district unlikely to elect a Republican to Congress. But she said Thursday, in an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, that she won’t resign until after the Nov. 6 election. She said she’s doing that out of consideration for the voters and doesn’t want to presume what they’ll do. If she wins and then resigns, it’ll take a special election to replace her — one that would likely leave her seat in the Senate empty for the early days of the legislative session. 

Earlier this year, Uresti was convicted of several felony charges of money laundering and fraud. He’s awaiting sentencing and also has promised to appeal. He also hasn’t quit. If he does, he’ll trigger a special election of his own. If it’s late enough, he, like Garcia, could leave a seat open in the Senate during the first days of the session.  

If Democrats take enough seats in the Senate, and if Garcia and Uresti leave late enough that the Senate opens the session with one or two empty seats , Republicans will have an opportunity to front-load controversial items in the session — via gubernatorial emergency orders — and try to win approval before the Democrats fill out their own ranks. 

Remember that the ratio applies to the number of senators in the room. 

A full house is 31 senators. Empty seats change the debate threshold. Three-fifths of 30 is 18. Three-fifths of 29 is 17. 

Even if the Republicans lose a seat or two in November, empty Garcia or Uresti seats could give them a little room. A Republican governor, assuming Greg Abbott wins, could speed consideration of favored bills by naming them “emergencies.” A Senate with a Republican supermajority, however temporary, could zip them through. 

And that leaves the final piece of this extremely speculative puzzle: the election of the next speaker of the Texas House. They’d like to get their conservative priorities out of the way before Democrats gather any strength. A reluctant House could foil them. With the departure of Joe Straus, who has been a moderate obstacle on some issues the Senate likes, the House hasn’t said, through its replacement vote, whether they’ll go along with anything the Senate or the governor wants to do. 

Right now, the government’s best chess players are trying to work that out.        

                This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

                The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.



Analysis: Here's what's in play in Texas' November general elections

Sure, there are a lot of races on the ballot in November that feature both Democrats and Republicans. But some are a lot more likely to change hands than others.

Texas Tribune


Now that the first round of this election cycle is out of the way, we can talk about November.

The election moves now — runoffs notwithstanding — to battles between the major parties instead of battles within them.

What’s in play? There’s one congressional seat, and maybe a couple more, that could change flags when the major parties clash. There’s a seat in the Texas Senate, and a couple of wildcard races that will put new people in that body. And there are a dozen or so spots in the Texas House that could go to either the Democrats or the Republicans. Those races will lock down the list of voters in the first significant election of 2019 — the one for speaker of the Texas House.

The top of the ticket is stronger on the Republican side, hardly a surprising development in a state where that party has dominated politics and government for decades.

The most interesting race — which is not to say it will be the most competitive when the votes are tallied — is the one where Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is being challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke. The governor’s race isn’t set, with Democrats Lupe Valdez and Andrew White on their way to a May runoff. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will face Democrat Mike Collier in his re-election bid.

The other non-judicial statewide races — for attorney general, comptroller, and land, agriculture and railroad commissioners — all feature incumbent Republicans and largely untested Democrats. They’re like the bands trying to get attention at the South By Southwest gathering in Austin, unheralded and hoping for a break.

Texas will have eight new people in its congressional delegation, replacing the people who didn’t seek new terms this year. Recent political results favor incumbent parties in those six Republican and two Democratic districts. Three districts where incumbent Republicans are running are generally considered the most likely candidates for political changes. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes represents the state’s only true swing district — one that can be won by a candidate of either party. Two more members of Congress — John Culberson of Houston and Pete Sessions of Dallas — are on Democratic target lists because, while they both won in 2016, they won in districts where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump.

The closest thing to a swing seat in the Texas Senate is Konni Burton’s in Tarrant County. The Colleyville Republican will face Beverly Powell in a general election that could be a test of President Donald Trump’s popularity in the sort of midterm election that often goes against a sitting president.

Two other seats could be in play soon. Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat; at least two Democrats have already jumped into her replacement race. Garcia doesn’t have to leave the Senate unless she wins the congressional seat in November, but she could leave early.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was convicted on federal charges including fraud and money laundering and could face millions in fines and years in prison. Like Garcia, he isn’t on the ballot this year — but like Garcia, he’s not expected to be in the Senate when the 86th Legislature convenes next January. Candidates are lining up in that one, too.

The Texas House, which will start 2019’s business by electing a new speaker to replace Joe Straus, who isn’t seeking another term, has a dozen seats where both Democrats and Republicans have a reasonable shot at victory, depending on the political mood and the quality of the candidates on each side.

That’s not enough to flip the House majority. With 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats now, that would require a 21-vote swing. What’s more, the swings are divided between Democrats and Republicans. The state’s Democrats are hoping to pick up five to 10 seats; Republicans are hoping to hang onto their strong majority. Both are hoping to have a strong influence on the selection of the next speaker in a race where three candidates have already surfaced and more are in waiting.

One definition of a swing seat is one in which neither statewide Democrats nor statewide Republicans have been able to run away in elections. The House has a dozen where the average margin of victory in statewide races has been smaller than 10 percentage points.

Five are held by Democrats: Philip Cortez of San Antonio, Abel Herrero of Robstown, Joe Moody of El Paso, Victoria Neave of Dallas and Mary Ann Perez of Houston. Each will have a Republican opponent and, perhaps, third-party opponents in November.

Seven are held by Republicans: Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, Tony Dale of Cedar Park, Sarah Davis of West University Place, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock, Linda Koop of Dallas and J.M. Lozano of Kingsville. Burkett gave up her seat for an unsuccessful Senate bid, and Gonzales didn’t seek another term. Both major parties have candidates in those two open seats, and the Democrats have a candidate in each of the others.

Those aren’t the only seats in play — just the obvious ones. More than 30 primary races won’t be settled until the May runoffs. A mess of seats are virtually decided since only one major party has a candidate, a list that includes four seats in the state’s congressional delegation, two in the state Senate and 53 in the House.

Everything else is theoretically up for grabs. But some are easier to reach than others.