WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared divided along ideological lines as it heard a bid by Texas to revive Republican-drawn electoral districts thrown out by a lower court for diluting the clout of black and Hispanic voters.
Some of the conservative justices seemed willing during arguments in the case to accept that the Republican-led Texas legislature acted in good faith when it adopted new electoral maps in 2013 for state legislative and U.S. congressional seats.
Liberal justices seemed skeptical that those maps resolved racial discrimination concerns that caused earlier maps to be invalidated, and questioned whether it was premature to hear the case because a lower court had not yet issued a final ruling on the dispute.
The case is the latest in which the justices are pondering a practice known as gerrymandering in which electoral districts in states are drawn in a way that amplifies the power of certain voters — in this case white voters — at the expense of others.
The Supreme Court is currently weighing two other gerrymandering cases, involving electoral maps drawn by Republicans in Wisconsin and Democrats in Maryland. Those cases focus not on claims of racial discrimination but rather on whether districts drawn with the aim of entrenching one party in power violate the U.S. Constitution.
The high court in September put on hold two lower court rulings that had invalidated a series of Texas electoral districts. The justices then were divided 5-4, with the conservatives justices backing Texas Republicans and the liberals dissenting, suggesting they could be similarly divided when they rule on the merits of the case by the end of June.
The position of the court’s frequent swing vote, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, was unclear, as he said little during the arguments.
Republican President Donald Trump’s administration backed Texas. Conservative Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Justice Neil Gorsuch all appeared sympathetic to the state.
The maps, adopted in 2013 and challenged by individual voters and civil rights groups representing blacks and Hispanics, were based on court-drawn districts imposed for the 2012 election after prior Republican-drawn maps were tossed as racially discriminatory.
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.
Liberal justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor suggested Texas was still trying to avoid drawing districts with no racial taint.
“Are you ending a litigation, or are you ending the possibility of a court stopping you from discriminating?” asked Sotomayor, the court’s only Hispanic justice.
The state’s lawyer, Scott Keller, denied any discriminatory motive, saying, “This was not the legislature trying to pull a fast one on anyone.”
The lower court found that the configuration of two U.S. House districts violated the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law that protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in Southern states. Texas has 36 U.S. House districts, 25 held by Republicans and 11 by Democrats.
The same court found similar faults with Texas House of Representatives maps.
Gerrymandering typically is accomplished by packing voters who tend to favor a particular party into a small number of districts to reduce their statewide voting power while scattering others in districts in numbers too small to be a majority.