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Fight over political boundaries may delay Texas primary election again

With the high-profile Texas redistricting case hitting the U.S. Supreme Court this week, there are still no legally approved maps to guide the state's April 3 primary, which continues to edge closer. As the High Court searched for a way to avoid the thorny issue, some justices toyed with the idea of pushing primaries back even further — possibly as late as June 26, giving the ongoing legal process room to play out.

In oral arguments before the court Monday, justices were weary to jump headfirst into a mess that could very well affect the balance of power in Congress and the Texas statehouse, not to mention key pieces of the landmark Voting Rights Act. Texas attorney and close redistricting watcher Michael Li wrote on his comprehensive all-things-redistricting blog (txredistricting.org): "The Supreme Court was sharply divided about what to do and reaching for options to deal with a very messy situation."

The Republican-controlled Lege pushed out its original GOP-friendly maps last year, but the state has yet to win pre-clearance from a panel of federal judges in D.C. as required by the Voting Rights Act for states like Texas that have a history of discriminatory voting practices. That panel has neither approved nor scrapped the Legislature's maps, but set the case for January 17. And it doesn't appear the Lege's redistricting plans could sail through without some tweaking. In denying the state's request for quick approval, the D.C. court said Texas used "an improper standard or methodology to determine which districts afford minority voters to elect their preferred candidates of choice."

With primaries looming, and no legal map for election officials to move on, a federal three-judge panel in San Antonio drafted interim maps the day before Thanksgiving for use in Texas' 2012 primary elections. Democrats and minority groups cheered: with its population boom over the past decade, Texas gained four Congressional seats, a growth of over 4 million people largely driven by Hispanics. Under the Lege's plan, Texas would have 10 minority-opportunity districts (arguably favoring Democrats) and 26 GOP-friendly districts. The San Antonio court's interim plan, by contrast, drew 13 minority-opportunity districts fitted for Democrats.

The Supremes took the redistricting case last month after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott cried foul, saying the three-judge panel should have just tweaked the plans churned out by the Lege. Instead, the SA court modified the districts approved last decade, arguing that they were the last legally approved maps. Still, Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether the state's request — to rely on the Lege-drawn maps without federal pre-clearance — essentially erodes the pre-clearance piece of the Voting Rights Act. In a statement after the hearing, MALDEF Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales said civil rights groups were "fighting to preserve the vitality of the Voting Rights Act."

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