***FOR PRINT***U.S. SC says federal court erred in drawing Texas redistricting plans

Jessica M. Karmasek Jan. 20, 2012, 10:52am

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a federal district court in San Antonio went too far in drawing interim redistricting plans for Texas.

The nation's highest court, in its opinion Friday, said because the federal panel "had the benefit of a recently enacted plan to assist it, the court had neither the need nor the license to cast aside that vital aid."

Earlier this week, the Court heard oral arguments over which boundaries the state will use -- maps drawn last summer by the state's Legislature, interim maps substituted by the federal court, or a variation of the two.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Texas showed a gain of more than 4 million people, mostly Latinos and African-Americans. The population growth means Texas will add four more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives next year -- from 32 to 36 seats in the 435-member body.

Opponents of the map drawn by the state Legislature argued the new boundaries dilute the voting power of minorities.

Several minority groups filed a lawsuit, and the federal court created another map it claims more fairly represents the new minority populations.

In November, the State challenged the court-drawn maps and asked the Supreme Court to hear their arguments.

"To the extent the district court exceeded its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of 'the collective public good' for the Texas Legislature's determination of which policies serve 'the interests of the citizens of Texas,' the court erred," the Supreme Court wrote in its 11-page per curiam opinion.

The Legislature's plan serves as a "starting point" for the federal court, the Supreme Court said.

"It provides important guidance that helps ensure that the district court appropriately confines itself to drawing interim maps that comply with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, without displacing legitimate state policy judgments with the court's own preferences," it wrote.

The federal court should "take guidance" from the Legislature's plan in drafting an interim plan, the Court said.

"That plan reflects the State's policy judgments on where to place new districts and how to shift existing ones in response to massive population growth," the Supreme Court wrote.

However, because it is unclear whether the federal court followed the "appropriate standards" in drawing the interim maps, the orders implementing the maps are vacated and the cases are remanded, the Court ordered.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who argued for the State, said the Court's "swift decision" will allow Texas to move forward with elections as soon as possible.

The state's primary elections have already been delayed from March to April 3 because of the legal battle.

"The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders," Abbott said in a statement Friday. "As the justices point out, courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the State.

"The Court made clear in a strongly-worded opinion that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it's clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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