By Drew Singer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal court ruled on Tuesday that controversial Texas redistricting maps discriminate against black and Hispanic voters, effectively killing the new districts before they could take effect for the November 6 presidential election.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued the ruling. The state maps, passed by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature, redrew districts in a way that reduced the influence of minority voters, the court ruled.
November's election will likely use interim maps drawn by a federal court in San Antonio instead.
The Obama administration in 2011 blocked the maps, arguing they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a law designed to protect the voting rights of minorities, primarily blacks in Southern states.
In rejecting the maps, the court could have stopped at ruling that they had a discriminatory effect, but it took the further step of ruling that the Texas legislature had a discriminatory intent in its drawing of the maps.
Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas had the burden to prove that its maps did not discriminate, nor that they intended to.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement that he would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. He called the ruling an extension of the Voting Rights Act beyond what Congress had intended.
The three-judge panel consisted of Judge Thomas Griffith and Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, who were both appointed by President George W. Bush — formerly the governor of Texas - and Judge Beryl A. Howell, appointed by President Barack Obama.
PLAINTIFFS HAIL VICTORY
"The fact that a three-judge panel, including two Republican-appointed judges, has found that Texas has intentionally discriminated against minority communities is incredible," said Luis Vera, attorney for the co-plaintiff United Latin American Citizens. "This is the biggest victory for the Voting Rights Act since it was approved by Congress."
Vera said that a three-judge panel in San Antonio, which has been sitting since the case was filed in May, will likely be asked to make a decision on whether to use its interim maps or another alternative.
"I anticipate being back in court in a day or two," he said.
The Obama administration has used the Voting Rights Act to counter the new wave of Republican measures that include voter ID requirements, redistricting maps and new ballot formats. Since the 2010 election, there have been more lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act than in the previous 45 years combined.
Texas is also awaiting a decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on a separate Voting Rights Act challenge to its voter identification law, which requires voters to present one of six forms of photo identification at the polls. A decision on that requirement, which was also blocked by the Obama administration, may come this week.
The series of challenges are building toward a possible U.S. Supreme Court review of the Voting Rights Act. The first two challenges reached the Supreme Court on July 20. If the court agrees to hear the cases during the term starting in October, it will weigh whether the civil rights-era law is still necessary.
Texas is one of 16 states, mostly in the South, that must receive approval from the U.S. federal government whenever it changes voting procedures. This requirement, called pre-clearance, was created by the Voting Rights Act to apply only to states with particularly harsh histories of racial discrimination.
The U.S. Supreme Court could view Tuesday's ruling as evidence that the Voting Rights Act is still necessary.
The case is Texas v. United States, No. 11-1303.
(Reporting by Drew Singer; Additional reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas, and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio, Texas; Editing By Howard Goller and M.D. Golan)