By Jim Ellis
March 16, 2017 — After the 2003 Texas redistricting saga became synonymous with internal partisan political strife, a three-judge federal panel appears to have ordered the state to again become engulfed in another such battle.
The special panel ordered a re-draw of three districts, and the after-effects of reconstituting the seats will change several more adjoining CDs. The 35th District of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), which contains parts of Bexar (San Antonio), Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, Hays, and Travis (Austin) counties, was actually declared illegal back in 2011. The Supreme Court remanded that ruling back to the panel, and instructed them to take action. Now, after three elections cycles have already passed, the court has decided to move forward.
In addition to the Doggett seat, the 23rd (Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio), and 27th (Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi) CDs have also been declared unconstitutional, and will need to be re-drawn if the ruling is upheld.
The Democratic plaintiffs argued that the districts illegally pack Latino voters and were done so because of race. Emails emanating from Republican staff members participating in the process, and the messages contained in them, lent credence to the Democrats’ case thus culminating in this court decision.
Rep. Michael Burgess’ (R-Pilot Point/Denton) 26th District was also challenged, and though the court agreed that the seat was “packed”, they stopped short of declaring it illegal.
It doesn’t appear that the Texas situation will be settled anytime soon. The state could appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court, and it is presumed that newly appointed nominee Neil Gorsuch will be on the panel by the time this case reaches the top judicial level. His addition would restore the 5-4 Republican advantage but doesn’t necessarily mean the lower court’s decision will be overturned.
If the decision is upheld, the map would return to the legislature for a re-draw. We can expect major changes in Hurd’s 23rd District, the state’s one true swing district that stretches from San Antonio some 550 miles to El Paso.
Since the district was originally created for the 1966 election, Democrats were routinely elected until former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-San Antonio) first won here in 1992, defeating then-Rep. Albert Bustamante (D). After Bonilla lost in 2006, the seat has changed hands four times with only former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) and Rep. Hurd winning a re-election campaign. It is likely both sides will want to see this seat strengthened in their favor, so we can count on a major battle when it comes to re-crafting these specific congressional lines.
Much will happen in the next few months, and Lone Star State strategists from both parties will be drawing and submitting maps that favor their particular caucus. The final plan, whenever it is passed, will again undergo court scrutiny, so it is unclear how this process will finally end.
It would not be surprising to see the battle carry over to the next census, nor shocking to see the courts order special elections in the newly created districts. All of these scenarios have happened before in the world of Texas redistricting.