As ThinkProgress previously explained, the state of Texas currently does not have any legally valid congressional maps. Because it gained four new congressional seats, it could not use its existing maps even if the Constitution would permit it to do so. The map drawn by the state legislature has not been “pre-cleared” as is required under the Voting Rights Act because of concerns that it discriminates on the basis of race, and an interim map drawn by federal judges in Texas was blocked by the Supreme Court late last year pending a more complete review of that interim map by the justices.
Many voting rights advocates feared that the conservative Supreme Court would use this case to make sweeping changes to the laws protecting voters, either by eliminating the judiciary’s authority to draw interim maps such as the ones at issue here or potentially even by striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, those fears proved unfounded this time around. The crux of their holding is that the lower court erred in drawing these particular maps because they did not treat the state legislature’s preferred maps as a baseline and depart from that baseline only when necessary to rescue the map from illegality:
In [the challenger’s] view, this Court’s precedents require district courts to ignore any state plan that has not received §5 preclearance. But the cases upon which appellees rely hold only that a district court may not adopt an unprecleared plan as its own. They say nothing about whether a district court may take guidance from the lawful policies incorporated insuch a plan for aid in drawing an interim map. Indeed, in Upham this Court ordered a District Court to defer to the unobjectionable aspects of a State’s plan even though that plan had already been denied preclearance.
In this case, the District Court stated that it had “giv[en] effect to as much of the policy judgments in the Legislature’s enacted map as possible.” At the same time, however, the court said that it was required to draw an “independent map” following “neutral principles that advance the interest of the collective public good.” In the court’s view, it “was not required to give any deference to the Legislature’s enacted plan,” and it instead applied principles that it determined “place the interests of the citizens of Texas first.” To the extent the District Court exceeded its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of “the collective public good” for the Texas Legislature’s determination of which policies serve “the interests of the citizens of Texas,” the court erred.
The partisan upshot of this decision is that it is probably good news for Republicans. In an earlier case called Vieth v. Jubelirer, the Supreme Court largely abdicated oversight over politically motivated gerrymanders, thus enabling political parties to be as aggressive as they want in drawing maps that achieve their partisan goals. Because the Texas legislature is overwhelming dominated by Republicans, today’s decision requiring the lower court to use their map as the baseline in drawing an interim map will increase the likelihood that partisan gerrymandering intended to favor the GOP will remain present in the interim map the lower court eventually produces.