PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

Opinion

April 24, 2013

Abbot my stir fight in Legislature

AUSTIN — The Texas Legislature's 2013 session has been surprisingly calm to date, featuring signs of an art feared lost, called "bipartisanship."  

It's partly because there are 40 freshmen in the Texas House of Representatives — the largest freshman class since 1973. They seem determined to avoid the hostile partisan warfare of their predecessors in the previous several years.

But helping allow the lovey-dovey atmosphere is they have been spared hot-button issues of 2011 — like requiring ultrasounds before getting abortions, requiring photo IDs to vote — and the most partisan issue of all: redistricting.

That campfire-like camaraderie could skid to a halt if the Republican-dominated legislature seriously considers the suggestion of Republican Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott to re-open redistricting.

Abbott's office is busy defending the redistricting maps drawn by the legislature in 2011.

Democrats and minority groups had challenged those maps, on grounds they intentionally discriminated against African Americans and Latinos..

That led to a three-judge federal court in San Antonio drawing interim maps for the 2012 elections, and postponement of the primary elections for almost three months

Abbott now is asking the legislature to adopt those interim redistricting maps as their own.     

Abbott says if the legislature adopts the interim maps, the incessant legal wrangling would go away. He indicates it would be hard for courts to object to maps drawn by judges.

“Enacting the interim plans into law would confirm the Legislature’s intent for a redistricting plan that fully comports with the law, and will insulate the State’s redistricting plans from further legal challenge,” Abbott wrote, in a March 8 letter to House Speaker Joe Straus and the Senate's presiding officer, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Both are Republicans.

That in turn would allow for orderly elections in 2014, without the need for postponement as happened in 2012 because of the court challenges.

But the parties that brought the suit, and a three-judge court in Washington, think even the interim maps are discriminatory.

The Mexican-American Legislative Caucus (MALC) told the San Antonio federal court that approved the interim maps for the Texas House and the U.S. House of Representatives that even those maps still might not comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

Cases over the maps still await decisions by federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court.

Abbott also has challenged the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires several states with discriminatory pasts — including Texas — to have any political changes "pre-cleared" by the Justice Department, or a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C., before they can be implemented.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an Alabama case, is considering the constitutionality of preclearance. After the court rules in that case, Texas’ redistricting case will resume in San Antonio.

“The attempt of the State of Texas to circumvent the judicial process through legislation that fails to provide a final remedial redistricting plan for Texas House and Texas Congressional Districts is even more reason for this Court to begin the process that will lead to a final and just remedial plan for future Texas elections,” MALC told the San Antonio Court in its filing.

Abbott must hope that most legislators will be partial to keeping the legislative districts that sent them to Austin in the first place.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who oversaw the redistricting bills in the Senate during the 2011 session, followed through on Abbott's suggestion.

On Thursday, April 18, he filed a redistricting bill to adopt the interim congressional and legislative districts maps as permanent until after redistricting following the 2020 federal census.

"Enacting these lawful and constitutional interim plans will help bring to a close this chapter of redistricting, enacting these plans will practically ensure that the ongoing litigation over Texas redistricting plans will come to a swift end and bring some surety of the primaries ensuing," Seliger said.

Not so fast, says Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, representing himself and the 11 other Democrats in the 31-member Senate. Neither he nor his colleagues "can trust the redistricting process," Watson said.

"Texas was the only state in the nation subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that was found to have deliberately discriminated against African American and Latino citizens," Watson said.

He said Abbott's efforts to overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and to restore the original maps the Washington court found discriminatory could only lead Democrats and minorities to distrust Seliger's bill.

Why does Abbott want to drop the fight?

If he can get rid of those divisive legal battles, he can also sidestep a big, continuing political headache — just as he's ramping up to run for governor in 2014.

Contact McNeely at davemcneely111@gmail.com or 512/458-2963.

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