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Court To Decide If Texas Voting Maps Discriminate

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Lawyers for President Obama's Justice Department and Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be squaring off in federal court in Washington on Wednesday.

The state has sued the federal government to try to win court approval for its new legislative maps. There are big stakes: Texas stands to gain four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But minorities in Texas, with a boost from the Justice Department, say the new boundaries amount to a step backward for Latino voting power.

Under the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, Texas needs to get permission from the federal government or a special federal court before it makes big voting changes. That's because the state has a history of discriminating against minorities at the ballot box

State lawmaker Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, says Texas' ruling political party may be breaking the law all over again.

"The Republican Legislature that drew and passed this map, and the Republican governor who signed this map, and the Republican attorney general who's defending this map in court chose this opportunity to expand their political power at the expense of minorities," he says.

Kel Seliger, a Republican state senator who helped get the new maps through the Legislature, told NPR in September that he's underwhelmed by that argument.

"Democrats assaulting a work product in which Republicans are the majority — that really comes as no surprise, does it?" Seliger said.

Seliger said the fight is about politics, not disrespect for Latino voters.

The Obama Justice Department disagrees. Civil rights lawyers say they have serious reservations about the new U.S. House plan, partly because it doesn't create a single new district that's majority Latino. What's more, the federal lawyers say, they've uncovered evidence of intentional discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity by state and federal lawmakers in Texas. Their court brief cites emails that may show people improperly took racial data into account when they drew district boundaries.

But a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says that's just wrong. Texas officials say Justice hasn't produced any evidence of discrimination, and the emails are all about trying to protect incumbents, who happen to be Hispanic and Republican.

"Despite their outrageous claims, if one looks behind DOJ's inflammatory rhetoric, they produce no genuine evidence of discrimination," deputy communications director Lauren Bean said in an emailed statement to NPR.

Voting rights experts say the issues are so complicated that it could take the special three-judge court in Washington a long time to sort through.

"A trial will probably take a fair amount of time, a lot of effort by both sides, and I think will draw negative attention to the people who are accused of discriminating on the basis of race," says University of Michigan law professor Sam Bagenstos.

But the state and its voters don't have a lot of time. Primaries begin in March, and Martinez Fischer says there's a big to-do list.

"That's everything from certifying precincts, to having a filing schedule for candidates to run in, and having enough time to print ballots to place them before different precincts throughout the state," he says.

Another court in San Antonio may wind up drafting an interim map to use as a fallback while the federal court case grinds along.

After all, the last time Texas had a legal fight over its redistricting maps, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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