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U.S. Supreme Court throws Texas politics for a loop: What happens next?

Austin Photo Set: News_Karen Brooks_election filing dl_Nov 2011
Texas state representatives are sworn in on the floor of the Texas House on Jan. 11, 2011. Photo by Charlie L. Harper III

The nation's highest court has thrown a wrench into Texas state politics — already a trainwreck, by most calculations.

The U.S. Supreme Court, faced with deciding whether political maps drawn last month by a panel of judges were fair, did what nobody actually thought it would do and ordered the state to delay implementing them while Democrats and Republicans continue to fight it out in court.

Bottom line: There are currently no legal and binding political maps for Congressional or state offices. 

 "It's a train wreck," said one political consultant in frustration. "People don't know what they're running for. People don't know who they're running against." 

 For laymen, that means the distinct possibility that there will be no March primary for state lawmakers and U.S. Congress (the presidential primaries, judges and statewides would go on as normal).

If both sides of the passionate battle over district lines can't come to an agreement, they will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court  on Jan. 9, 2012 to make their arguments — mucking up the filing deadline, which right now is on Dec. 15 for the map that was just tossed back to the state. 

That means Texas could end up deciding their parties' respective nominees for the newly drawn — for the third time — districts in May. Just in time to muck up municipal elections, nearly guaranteeing that voters will turnout in high numbers and strike down any bond efforts or tax increase (which is what happens when large numbers of fired-up Republicans turn out for city elections.) 

"It's a train wreck," said one political consultant in frustration. "People don't know what they're running for. People don't know who they're running against." 

Worst case scenario: Two multi-million dollar statewide primaries, exactly one year after the state slashed its budget to deal with a historic shortfall. It could happen. It may not. Because until the judges issue further instruction next week, nobody really knows how to move forward.

Overstepping bounds?

Every 10 years, state legislatures are charged with adjusting their district lines to keep up with shifts in population as recorded by the U.S. Census. Typically, lawmakers draw the lines to reflect minority growth and party shifts in statewide political leanings. And every time, each party tries to use the redistricting process to either solidify (or create) their majority (as the Texas GOP did in 2001) or regain some power (as the Dems tried to do this time around.) 

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 demands that the states draw their lines in a manner that doesn't disenfranchise minorities by either bundling them all in one district or spreading them out so thinly that they have no power at all. 

 Almost nobody thought the Supreme Court would intervene- not Republicans, not Democrats, not consultants, and certainly not reporters. One GOP consultant called it a ".0001 percent chance that they would, and they did." 

When the Texas Legislature drew its map during its 2011 session earlier this year, Democrats and apparently some Republican judges decided that the Republican supermajority in the Texas House and near-supermajority in the Texas Senate overstepped their bounds and created a map that was unfair to minorities. 

Some would-be candidates campaigned and raised money in districts outlined in the new maps, convinced that the new map would stand up in court. It did not, as an appointed panel of two Republicans and one Democrat struck down the map and redrew it just a few days before candidates were set to file for office in late November. 

Right up until a couple days before filing started, some people, like Fort Worth Democratic state Rep. Marc Veasey, didn't know what they'd be running for. Would the second incarnation of maps contain a U.S. Congressional district that Veasey could win? Or should he stick to the map drawn by the Republican majority and run for re-election to the state House?

The judges' version drew the new Congressional district, so two weeks ago, Veasey filed to run for the new Congressional seat. 

Supreme court surprises

But Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott argued that the judges, not the Lege, had overstepped their bounds and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Almost nobody thought it would - not Republicans, not Democrats, not consultants, and certainly not reporters. One GOP consultant called it a ".0001 percent chance that they would, and they did."

They sure did. Around 8 p.m. Friday night, while the good people of the world were taking in an opera or having dinner with their families or arriving at the pub, the U.S. Supreme Court threw Texas politics for a loop. And if there's anything that doesn't need more loops, it's Texas politics.

Counties are being instructed to stop accepting filing applications for the three offices affected by the redistricting debacle — state reps, state senators and U.S. Congress. Nobody who has filed will get their filing fees back, but they may have to refile next year. 

So now the map that Veasey filed under is back on the drawing board. Consultants who thought their clients were dead in the water are seeing new hope. One-time Congressional hopeful Michael Williams, a Republican, called his political career dead last week, telling reporters that the judges' map had eliminated the district he wanted to run in and so he would probably retire from political life. He declared it a good run. 

Take heart, Mr. Williams. It may not be over after all. After all, this is Texas politics. And it's almost as predictable as the weather.

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