Texas Democrats file lawsuit challenging special session for redistricting

Even before Gov. Greg Abbott has called a special legislative session for lawmakers to conduct redistricting, a lawsuit has been filed with the aim of blocking the enactment of those maps.

Sens. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) and Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin), along with Tejano Democrats, petitioned a federal court in Austin to bar the state legislature from taking action on redistricting until 2023.

They argue that the state constitution’s requirement that redistricting be completed during “its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census” means that lawmakers are precluded from doing it before then.

While the census is typically published during the regular legislative session when legislators conduct redistricting, delays at the Census Bureau this year caused the redistricting data to not be released until August, long after the regular session had ended.

“The Texas Constitution is as clear as it can be: first, the Census is published, then Legislature must consider apportionment in the regular session following publication,” said Gutierrez in a press release.

“The Governor decided unilaterally that he can ignore the Texas Constitution any time it is convenient, but when it comes to how our legislative districts will look for the next ten years, we’re putting out foot down.”

For the interim election, the two Democrats are asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to be the one to draw the temporary maps.

Gutierrez and Eckhardt also have a notable attorney representing them, former Republican Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who had been first appointed to his position by Gov. Rick Perry.

Though coming ahead of any official action by the legislature, the legal argument made by Gutierrez and Eckhardt comes as no surprise.

During a legislative hearing earlier this year, Texas Legislative Council Executive Director Jeff Archer told lawmakers that there “are some differences of opinion” on whether the legislature has the authority to conduct redistricting during a special legislative session.

“I doubt they could enjoin the legislature from acting,” said Archer. “Under most case law that’s considered premature. But they could potentially challenge a plan drawn by the legislature in a special session.”

At that time, Archer also mentioned something that the new lawsuit omits but that is sure to be among the counterarguments against it: precedent.

The legislature has carried out some redistricting responsibilities in previous special sessions, even as recently as 2011 immediately following the regular session.

Still, though, it would be far from unprecedented for a court to intervene in Texas’ redistricting process.

“For nearly 20 years Texas Republicans have manipulated the redistricting process to disenfranchise minority voters and Democrats to maintain a tenuous hold on the state legislature, but that all ends now,” said Eckhardt. “We will continue to demand that they start following both the intent and the letter of the law. Party’s over.”