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Federal judges won’t halt Texas primary in Fort Worth area

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A federal three-judge panel in El Paso on Tuesday denied a request by Tarrant County residents to block a reconfigured state Senate district from being used in the upcoming March primary election while they pursue a lawsuit arguing that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they redrew its boundaries.

mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

A federal three-judge panel in El Paso on Tuesday denied a request by Tarrant County residents to block a reconfigured state Senate district from being used in the upcoming March primary election while they pursue a lawsuit arguing that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they redrew its boundaries.

The legal challenge to Senate District 10 in the Fort Worth area offered the only avenue to alter the state political maps drawn last year by the Legislature before the primary election. The Republican-controlled Legislature used the once-a-decade redistricting process to draw maps solidifying the GOP’s political dominance while weakening the influence of voters of color.

Without a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the maps will remain in place until later this year, when the panel is expected to hold a trial to hear the large collection of challenges to the new maps for the state House and Senate, the State Board of Education and the state’s Congressional seats.

The plaintiffs — including Democratic state Sen. Beverly Powell, who represents SD-10 in its previous configuration — and attorneys for the state faced off in an El Paso courtroom last week during a four-day hearing before the three-judge panel. The plaintiffs were asking for a temporary injunction blocking the primary using the redrawn SD-10.

Local elected leaders took the stand, trying to convince the court that using the Legislature’s map would undermine the voices of Black and Hispanic voters by cracking apart the voting blocs that existed in the previous SD-10 and sinking them into districts with majority-white electorates.

Under the GOP map, some Black and Hispanic populations previously in District 10 were split into two other districts. The Black and Hispanic voters remaining in the newly drawn District 10, in urban areas of south Fort Worth, were lumped in with several rural, mostly white counties to the south and west, driving up the district’s population of white eligible voters while diminishing the number of voters of color.

The new map “would keep African American and Hispanic voters from ever being able to elect their candidate of choice,” Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks, a plaintiff in the case, told the court.

Meanwhile, the state argued that the reconfiguration of SD-10 was motivated by partisanship, not race, and the plaintiffs were unable to prove that race was the predominant factor motivating the Legislature’s action. The chamber’s chief map-drawer, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said throughout the redistricting process that the maps were drawn “race-blind” but were presented to legal counsel who cleared them as compliant with federal law meant to protect voters of color from discrimination.

She has repeatedly declined to disclose how they reached that conclusion, though. In a deposition for the SD-10 challenge, Huffman invoked legislative privilege to shield herself from answering questions about her considerations while redrawing the district.

The redrawn SD-10 will offer Republicans an easier bid to pick up another seat in the Republican-controlled chamber following a series of elections in which the Senate district flipped from Republican to Democratic control.

The state also argued it was too late to make changes for the March 1 primary, for which mail-in ballots have already started going out. In-person early voting begins Feb. 14.

The three-judge panel did not specify its reasons for siding with the state in its Tuesday order, saying those would be contained in a forthcoming opinion. The panel did note the state’s argument that an order to block the use of the redrawn SD-10 so close to the primary election would “fly in the face” of the Supreme Court’s previous warnings that lower courts should not make changes “on the eve of an election.”

The challenge to SD-10 is just one of several federal lawsuits challenging the maps based on allegations that lawmakers discriminated — in some cases intentionally — against voters of color by diminishing the power of their votes.

The collection of individual voters and organizations representing voters of color that sued the state are joined in their challenge to the maps by the Biden administration, which last year jumped into what’s expected to be a protracted fight over the political boundaries the state will use for elections to come.

The cases are being heard by federal district judges David Guaderrama and Jeffrey Brown and federal appellate judge Jerry Smith from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Guaderrama is an Barack Obama appointee while Brown is a Donald Trump appointee. Smith was appointed by Ronald Reagan.

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