State’s maps: Detestable paternalism

Posted on from San Antonio Express-News in In the News

By O. Ricardo Pimentel

U.S. Supreme Court justices have an opportunity to make a bold statement either for or against the kind of game rigging that has been going on throughout the country every 10 years.

This is commonly referred to as redistricting but, in practice and in effect, is better known as gerrymandering.

On Monday, the highest court will hear arguments on Texas redistricting cum gerrymandering.

The issue is whether Texas, with a history of discrimination against minority voters, will be able to use redistricting maps that haven’t been pre-cleared to determine if they are discriminatory, per the Voting Rights Act. If the court allows this, it will have to set aside interim maps drawn by a federal panel of judges in San Antonio and do much damage to the Act in the process.

So, the effect of their ruling will still be either to embolden legislatures to continue to draw lines to ensure party dominance; or, draw them as if the Voting Rights Act actually mattered.

A ruling here will not be as sweeping as the one that ended separate but equal in public education but, by not allowing maps that haven’t been pre-cleared, the court can make a similar statement — that the federal government has a right to stop state legislators, through redistricting, to separate minority voters from their opportunity for representation of their choosing.

Those challenging these maps have now had two federal courts essentially agree that the state maps should not go forward. And the courts used strong language that, deciphered, say the state used standards that did not do justice to minority voter growth or rights.

Latinos accounted for 65 percent of this growth, minorities altogether about 90 percent.

Texas’ state House map, however, reduced the number of districts in which minorities have at least a chance to elect a representative of their choosing from 50 to 45. And though the state’s minority population growth earned Texas four additional congressional seats, state legislators reasoned that only one of these should be majority-minority.

The most charitable reading of this speaks to a detestable paternalism — the Legislature telling minority voters to eat their GOP spinach. Here, we know what’s good for you.

But it really matters little what motivated the GOP-dominated Legislature. The high court should weigh the effect. And these maps are discriminatory.

The U.S. Constitution says, “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.” That last part has, fortunately, been fixed.

With a nod from the U.S. Constitution elsewhere, the Texas Constitution empowers the state’s Legislature to draw the lines.

But reading constitutions is always a balancing act and the prohibition on abridging rights, including voting rights, is at least as implicit, if not explicit, in various U.S. constitutional amendments.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” says the 15th.

The questions the justices ask and how they react on Monday will, if the past offers any lesson, point to a direction for the court majority. That ruling must not trample minority voting rights in Texas.