The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared divided along ideological lines as it heard a bid by Texas to revive Republican-drawn electoral districts thrown out by a lower court for diluting the clout of black and Hispanic voters.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the leading liberals on the bench, peppered Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller about the timing of the state's appeal to the Supreme Court, which the minority groups say was meant to short-circuit the lower court's move to have the Legislature draw new political maps or have the courts hold new redistricting hearings.
Abbott v. Perez is the state's effort to overturn a lower-court ruling that challenges the constitutionality of voting districts in Texas.
When Riggs said that the 2013 map was passed to "mask" the discriminatory intent that Texas had in drawing the 2011 version, Roberts asked who was doing the masking: the Texas legislature, or the district court that drew the interim model it was based on? That's not just our opinion, that's the federal court's ruling.
Court battles prevented those district lines from going into effect, with a temporary court-ordered map used instead in the 2012 elections.
And the stakes are high, too, since the case involves whether Republican redistricting in Texas was motivated by racial discrimination or pure politics.
The map in question originated when Texas courts rejected a previous map created to benefit the Republican-controlled legislature, establishing a temporary map for the 2012 election that was later enacted permanently.
"The district court in Texas trampled on law and logic alike in order to wrest from the people of Texas their authority - through their duly elected representatives - to control their legislative districts".
In the background of that discussion is the threat that Texas could be put back under the so-called pre-clearance process, which under the Voting Rights Act would require it to seek the Justice Department's or a federal court's approval every time it changed its voting policies.
In 2017, the district court ruled on the challenges to both the 2011 and 2013 maps.
The court's more liberal justices, led by Justice Breyer, expressed the view that an injunction is necessary for the court to hear this case or the court will be inundated with appeals from non-final redistricting cases. "Solicitor General Keller and the DOJ presented powerful oral arguments in defense of Texas' redistricting maps, and I anticipate a favorable decision". At the time, the district court warned that it was not done working through the claims against the 2011 maps. If the plaintiffs win on the merits, the district court will begin the process of redrawing two congressional districts and nine state house districts the court has ruled unconstitutional.
Republican President Donald Trump's administration backed Texas.
For that reason, the minority groups argued Tuesday that the Supreme Court doesn't yet have jurisdiction over the case and should return it to the lower courts.
"What does the piece of paper say here?" he asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller, who conceded that there was no "magic word" of preliminary injunction.
The position of the court's frequent swing vote, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, was unclear, as he said little during the arguments. Texas' 35th Congressional District is a prime example.
Opponents of the legislative lines argue the state should not have appealed the initial decision directly to the Supreme Court.
In that case, any new maps imposed at the lower court level could be appealed anew to the high court.
"More importantly, it doesn't matter whether they wanted to end the litigation or not, it matters how they wanted to end the litigation", Riggs said.
But the Supreme Court wiped clean the list in 2013, noting that conditions for voters of color had "dramatically improved".