The Texas attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The judicial panel’s decision came eight months after a federal appeals court ruled in a separate case that the state’s tough voter-identification law needed to be made less restrictive because it discriminated against minority voters who lacked the required government-issued photo IDs. The Republican-led Legislature that passed the voter ID bill in 2011 also passed the contested redistricting maps.
Friday’s decision means that in the span of months, two federal courts in two voting-rights cases found that the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature discriminated against black and Hispanic voters.
“Republicans have ensured that the dark days of discrimination in Texas continue to loom, but the sun will soon shine,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement after the redistricting decision. “In time, justice prevails.”
The ruling was made by two judges on a panel of three Federal District judges that heard the case. The two judges who found that the congressional maps discriminated were Xavier Rodriguez, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, and Orlando L. Garcia, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
The third judge, Jerry E. Smith, issued a dissent, arguing that Texas Republican lawmakers who drew the maps had partisan rather than racial motives. Judge Smith, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, sharply criticized lawyers from the Obama-era Justice Department, which had intervened in the case, for their “arrogance and condescension,” noting the eye-rolling and gum-chewing of one lawyer in particular.
“It was obvious, from the start, that the DOJ attorneys viewed state officials and the legislative majority and their staffs as a bunch of backwoods hayseed bigots who bemoan the abolition of the poll tax and pine for the days of literacy tests and lynchings,” Judge Smith wrote.
The significance of the ruling striking down the maps lies in part in its potential penalty.
Texas had been one of several mostly Southern states that required federal approval before making changes to its voting laws, because of the states’ history of discrimination. But the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act freed Texas and the other states and localities from requiring advance federal permission before changing their voting procedures, a process known as preclearance.
The Supreme Court’s decision left intact provisions of the Voting Rights Act that allow federal courts to put a state or jurisdiction back under preclearance if it is found to have intentionally discriminated against minorities.
The ruling on Friday found an intentional and unconstitutional discriminatory purpose in the drawing of two of the districts — Congressional District 23 in South and West Texas and Congressional District 26 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — and as a result put preclearance back on the table for Texas.
The two judges wrote that with the sprawling Congressional District 23, map drawers had taken steps to intentionally disadvantage Latino voters by including Hispanics with lower voter turnout rates, excluding higher-turnout Hispanics, fracturing politically cohesive Hispanic areas and including “higher-turnout Anglos” in the district.
“This decision is a big deal, because the court found that Texas intentionally discriminated against African-American and Latino voters, setting the stage for Texas to potentially be put back under a preclearance requirement,” said Michael Li, an expert on Texas redistricting and a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The San Antonio judges did not address whether they would order Texas back under federal oversight, stating only that “those issues remain to be determined.”
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