WASHINGTON The Supreme Court handed Texas Republicans a partial victory in a partisan fight over election redistricting that has erupted after a huge increase in the state's Hispanic population.
Throwing out a set of election maps that favored Democrats and minorities, the justices on Friday sent the case back to a lower court, forcing further review of a matter with a limited timetable for resolution as 2012 elections are fast approaching.
In its first ruling on political boundary-drawing based on the 2010 U.S. Census, the high court unanimously rejected interim election maps that had been drawn up by federal judges in San Antonio.
The court said the judges' maps did not sufficiently take into account an earlier set of maps that were drawn up by the Texas state legislature that favored Republicans.
Under the high court's ruling, the Texas judges must redraw the maps for primary contests set for April 3 that will decide party candidates for congressional and state legislature elections in November.
The case is typical of redistricting fights that unfold in states across the country every 10 years after a national census. In this one, protecting the voting rights of millions of minorities and substantial political power are at stake.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, said, "The Supreme Court's swift decision will allow Texas to move forward with elections as soon as possible under maps that are lawful."
The case is being closely watched because it could help decide whether Republicans or Democrats gain as many as four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November. The Texas delegation now has 23 Republicans and nine Democrats.
MEXICAN-AMERICANS GROUP WEIGHS IN
A civil rights group representing Hispanics, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the ruling reaffirmed Texas' obligation to comply with the voting rights law. The group said it looked forward to further proceedings in San Antonio to secure fair interim maps.
Abbott had appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the lower court had overstepped its authority, and arguing that the judges should have deferred to maps drawn by elected lawmakers.
Those maps favor Republican candidates, but have been challenged for violating the voting rights of Hispanics and other minorities.
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal district court judges appeared to have unnecessarily ignored the state's plans in drawing certain districts and that those maps can at least be used as a starting point.
"Some aspects of the district court's plans seem to pay adequate attention to the state's policies, others do not and the propriety of still others is unclear," the court held in its narrow opinion limited to the unique facts of the Texas dispute.
Redrawing the Texas districts has been a major political and legal battle. The state's population went up by more than 20 percent, or 4.2 million people, over the past decade, with Hispanics accounting for 2.8 million of the increase.
FOUR NEW DISTRICTS FORMED
After the 2010 Census, Texas got four new congressional seats, giving it 36. The legislature's plan, signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race on Thursday, created only one new heavily Hispanic district.
The Supreme Court, in the 11-page, unsigned opinion, said the judges, in coming up with new maps, must be careful not to incorporate any legal defects from the legislature's plan.
The interim maps drawn by the judges in Texas were designed to remain in place until a separate court in Washington, D.C., could decide whether the Texas state plan should be approved or rejected under the federal voting rights law.
A trial in that case is under way. That case and a different pending legal challenge in San Antonio are expected to determine the final maps to be used in Texas in future years.
The Obama administration, the state Democratic Party and minority groups have challenged parts or all of the state's redistricting plan for violating the voting rights law, and said the judicially drawn one should be used on an interim basis.
Justice Clarence Thomas issued a brief opinion agreeing with the judgment, but adding that he would have gone further. He said the legislature's plans have not been found to violate any law and should be used for the upcoming elections.
The Supreme Court cases are Perry v. Perez, No 11-713; Perry v. Davis, No. 11-714, and Perry v. Perez, No. 11-715.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Vicki Allen)