Judge: Keep negotiating Texas redistricting deal
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A federal judge swiftly rejected a proposed temporary fix to Texas' months-long fight over redistricting on Monday, ordering all sides to keep talking just hours after a compromise was announced by the attorney general and immediately condemned by several minority advocacy groups.
The court order likely guarantees that the fight will delay Texas' primary elections for a second time. Republicans feared that another delay could prevent Texas voters from helping decide which GOP candidate challenges President Barack Obama in November.
The advocacy groups are suing the state, alleging that the Republican-controlled Legislature ignored the state's burgeoning Hispanic population when it redrew boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts.
Monday was the deadline for both sides to agree to temporary maps for the 2012 elections in order to hold the primaries on April 3. In his rejection order, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said the plan needed more support from involved parties, and he didn't award extra time.
"All deadlines remain in place until the Court is notified that an agreement has been reached," the judge wrote.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had optimistically introduced the plan earlier Monday. It had the backing of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the largest groups that sued the state.
Under the proposal, Hispanics would control two of four new congressional seats that Texas was awarded following the 2010 Census, which reflected the state's population boom in the last decade. But apart from MALDEF and Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, most others involved in the lawsuit said the proposal fell far short of a fair compromise.
Luis Vera, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, scoffed at the new deal and accused the state of overselling the number of many plaintiffs that signed off on it. Late Monday, his group and six of the other nine plaintiffs filed court briefs formally opposing the plan.
Vera said talks had halted, adding: "There's no agreement, and there's nothing to talk about."
In a written statement late Monday, Abbott didn't acknowledge the judge's order but said his office "has worked with a wide range of interest groups to incorporate reasonable requests from all parties" without compromising the will of the Texas Legislature. He has said a primary likely couldn't be organized before April 17.
When asked earlier Monday if he was happy with the proposed compromise, Abbott said "it's a step in the right direction." He said failure to reach a consensus wasn't for a lack of trying.
MALDEF attorney Nina Perales said the maps put forward by Abbot came very close to what her organization requested. She said that in addition to creating two new Hispanic-dominated congressional districts, the plan also created two Hispanic-majority districts in the Texas House and restored two Hispanic districts in the Rio Grande Valley and Nueces County.
"Although they are not perfect, the plans that have been released by the state today ... more fairly reflect the growing strength of Latino voters in Texas," Perales said. "They properly recognize that protecting voting rights is more important than partisanship or incumbency protection."
But most of the groups suing the state said the deal was no compromise. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus argued that the new plan actually dilutes minority influence in some areas. Its chairman, Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, said the two Hispanic congressional seats would come on the condition of losing ground in other districts currently dominated by Hispanic voters.
"If you tell me we're going to get these seats at the expense of another district, that's not a win," he said.
In Washington, another federal court is weighing a separate case challenging whether maps draw by the Texas Legislature were legal. Since Texas is one of nine states with a history of racial discrimination, the Washington court or the U.S. Department of Justice must pre-approve any changes to state election laws. A ruling in that case isn't expected for at least another month.
The stakes are unusually high because the nation's second-largest state is adding four congressional seats — and the way they are divvyed up could be pivotal in determining which party controls the U.S. House.
The Texas Legislature got the first crack at drawing new maps for Congress and the Statehouse, but their plan was quickly challenged by Cuellar and minority groups.
If the court rejects the compromise, the judges could split the primaries into two elections — one for the presidential race, and a later one for state and congressional elections that are at the mercy of where map lines are settled.
A split primary would let parties hold their conventions on schedule — but could cost taxpayers $15 million.
Republican legislative leaders argued that they drew the original maps merely to benefit their party's candidates, but minority groups claim they discriminate by diluting the voting power of blacks and Hispanics. All states must redraw political districts following the census every 10 years to adjust for population changes.
Associated Press writer Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.