By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday halted the use of judge-drawn Texas election maps that favor minority candidates and Democrats in 2012 congressional and state legislative elections and agreed to decide the dispute that could have national implications.
The justices said they would hear arguments on January 9 in the first battle to reach the high court over political line-drawing of election maps nationwide after the 2010 U.S. census. The fights typically occur every 10 years.
The justices granted an emergency request by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, asking that the interim court-drawn congressional and state legislative redistricting plans be put on hold.
The ruling was a defeat for the Texas Democratic Party and for groups representing Hispanics and blacks, which said stopping use of court-drawn maps would disrupt election preparations, result in voter confusion and cause turmoil.
The maps were drafted last month after minority groups challenged the original plans by the Republican-dominated state Legislature. Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, signed the legislation into law.
Abbott said a federal district court panel in San Antonio erred by refusing to defer to the Legislature's plan, that the wholesale revisions were unjustified and the state maps should be used except for any district ruled to be illegally drawn.
Redrawing the Texas districts has become a major political and legal issue. The state's population went up by more than 20 percent, or 4.2 million people, over the past decade, with Hispanics accounting for 2.8 million of the increase.
After the 2010 census, Texas got four new congressional seats, giving it a total of 36. The state Legislature's plan created only one new heavily Hispanic district.
The U.S. Justice Department under the Obama administration opposed parts of the state redistricting plans for denying fair representation to minorities under the voting rights law.
The interim maps drawn by the judges were designed to remain in place until the legal battle over the redistricting plans has been resolved.
It has been playing out before the federal district court in San Antonio and before a three-judge federal court panel in Washington.
The Supreme Court in a order set up a fast schedule, with the first briefs due on December 21 and the next set on January 3. The court is likely to make a quick ruling after the arguments.
The Texas primary elections are scheduled for March 6.
The Supreme Court cases are Perry v. Perez, No 11-713; Perry v. Davis, No. 11-714, and Perry v. Perez, No. 11-715.
(Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Xavier Briand)