Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in 7-Year-Long Texas Redistricting Case

The Supreme Court heard oral argument today in Abbott v. Perez, two consolidated racial redistricting cases out of Texas.  This is a long-running case:

“We’re seven years into the case after three trials and two appeals to this court,” said Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller.

At the threshold, there is a jurisdictional question about whether the matter is proper for the Court to hear:

In the latest incarnation of the case, a three-judge panel in Texas last summer said two congressional districts and a handful of legislative districts were unconstitutional, and called on the governor to convene the legislature to draw new lines.

Before that could happen, Texas went to the Supreme Court. In September, the court on a 5-to-4 vote put that order on hold until it could hear the case. 

But not waiting for the process to play out truncated things at a critical time, the liberal justices said Tuesday.

On the merits, the Court appeared divided along liberal and conservative lines during oral argument.  The conservative justices seemed to find persuasive that the Texas legislature adopted interim maps drawn by the district court to be used in the 2012 election:

Chief Justice Roberts said Texas has a “strong argument” that the new maps were adopted in large part to bring an end to long-running litigation over whether the maps were discriminatory. 

“It does seem to me that at the very least .... that ought to give them some presumption of good faith moving forward, which is significant to the determination of their intent to discriminate,” Roberts added.

This is a somewhat more "traditional" redistricting case, in contrast to the two partisan redistricting claims that the Court has already heard this term in Gill v. Whitford and Benisek v. Lamone.  The jurisdictional question and complicated procedural history of the two Texas cases make them distinct from many redistricting cases, but they still teach the same lesson: clarity is needed in the legal rules governing redistricting to avoid states, legislators, and individuals being involved in lengthy litigation where judges attempt to apply unclear standards to complex facts with widely varying results. If courts are going to decide redistricting cases, there must be clear, easily applicable standards, not arbitrary decisions depending on which judicial panel is selected to hear a particular case.