A lengthy and contentious fight over Texas redistricting plans took a new twist Friday when the state and a minority group opposing the redrawn maps started negotiating over the disputed districts in hopes of preserving its April 3 primary.
The state attorney general's office told a three-judge panel in San Antonio that the goal should be to draw a temporary map to keep the primary, but minority groups signaled the discussions may have greater significance.
While hashing out a temporary map just for the 2012 elections would avoid Texas delaying its primary for a second time, it would leave unresolved a larger clash over minority representation. That separate battle has escalated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Texas is one of nine states with a history of racial discrimination that must ask the Washington federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice to pre-approve any changes to state election laws.
After a daylong hearing Friday in San Antonio, a three-judge panel said that if the two sides can't reach an agreement by Feb. 6, the primary will be pushed back.
That hearing came a day after testimony ended in Washington over whether parts of the new Republican-drawn map violate the Voting Rights Act. Closing arguments are set for Tuesday and judges have given no indication on when they might rule.
Negotiations between the state and minority groups were under way even before the court made its ruling late Friday. Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott had approached his group to make a serious attempt to reach a compromise that would keep the state's April primary.
With that trial winding down, Martinez-Fischer said the strong case made by minority groups to the Washington court could be driving the state's readiness to talk about reaching a compromise on the maps that will be used in the upcoming election while the two court cases are resolved.
"What's significant is that there's never been any discussions. There are now," Martinez-Fischer said. "Something's motivating that."
Addressing the San Antonio court, Assistant Attorney General David Mattax characterized the discussions as purely geared toward getting a temporary map in place so the state could keep its primary. Anything agreed-upon, in other words, would not be final.
"An interim map for 2012. That's what we need to get done now," Mattax told the court.
But minority groups questioned if that was even still feasible after the Supreme Court ordered the San Antonio to take a second try at drafting temporary political maps for the 2012 election.
Even some Republicans weren't sold on the idea of a temporary map. An attorney for Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, whose district could be affected by a new map, said the attorney general's office does not have the authority to negotiate map boundaries outside of what the Texas Legislature submitted.
"The state cannot advocate a map other than that which the policy-making body passed," said Joe Nixon, Barton's attorney. "That is why Congressman Barton chose to intervene to protect his interest. We're not in a situation where we can say what can we agree or not agree on."
Minority groups want congressional and legislative maps that reflect the increase in minorities living in Texas, something they say the Legislature's maps do not do. Republican lawmakers say they drew new maps to benefit their political party, not to discriminate against minorities.
The long-running dispute over the maps has volleyed between the San Antonio federal court which is considering the allegations of racial discrimination and the one in Washington which is checking to make sure the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is intended to pre-empt discriminatory election laws from going into effect.
The San Antonio court had previously drawn interim maps while the Washington trial took place, but those were thrown out last week by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said the San Antonio court did not show enough deference to the map crafted by Texas lawmakers and adjusted parts of the map where there was no Voting Rights Act argument.
Abbott had asked the San Antonio court to quickly draw temporary maps so that Texas can still hold its primary on April 3. Minority groups, meanwhile, asked for more time to explain what they think the maps should look like.
At issue is how the maps, drawn last year by Republicans in the Legislature, treat minorities. Republican leaders say the maps merely benefit their party's candidates, but minority groups claim they discriminate by diluting minority voting power. Texas must redraw political districts every 10 years to adjust for population changes.