December 22, 2010 | National Journal

Hispanic Groups Brace for Redistricting Fights: Expect Court Battles

Texas Gov. Rick Perry heads a Republican Party that controls the redistricting process in the Lone Star State. But will GOP ambitions conflict with those of the state's growing Hispanic population?

Big gains in state legislatures last election and expanding populations in the South and Southwest have Republicans salivating about controlling the redistricting process in booming Sunbelt states. But Tuesday's Census figures signalled that GOP ambitions may come crashing against civil rights law: most of the new seats come as the result of booming Hispanic and African American populations in states where those groups -- which lean Democratic -- are protected against gerrymandering by the Voting Rights Act.

Texas was the big winner in the latest round of reapportionment, picking up four House seats, while Florida gained two and South Carolina and Georgia each gained one. Republicans are in sole control of redistricting in all of those states.

But, notes William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution "the people who are making these places grow may not have the same [voting] proclivities as those who already live there." In the last decade, 63 percent of Texas' growth and 51 percent of Florida's came from Hispanics, Frey said. "That's really the growth engine."

Because of the states' past history of discrimination, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida are required to submit all redistricting plans to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval. This year, for the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the Justice Department is in control of a Democratic administration for the once-a-decade redistricting process. The Department of Justice, for its part, plans to closely monitor whether states comply with the law that bans the "dilution" of minority groups' vote. "When a state submits a plan to us we'll review for compliance with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act," said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department Spokeswoman

Many see a conflict coming as Republican state legislators attempt to draw maps favorable to their parties, and the Justice Department aggressively enforces the 45-year-old civil rights law that encourages the creation of House districts that enhance opportunities for blacks and Hispanics to win election to Congress.

"A perfect storm" is what Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, a veteran of many Democratic redistricting battles, called the situation developing in Texas."I think that Republicans, like Democrats, are aware of what the legal requirements are," Hebert said. "Oftentimes, however, achieving one's political goals can be a little bit inconsistent with those legal requirements."

Hispanic advocacy groups like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund are gearing up for court challenges. "We are already prepared to make sure states like Texas and Florida comply with the law," said NALEO Senior Director Rosalind Gold. "We're going to keep an eye to make sure partisan gain doesn't get in the way of Latino political participation. We've been advocating generally with the folks doing redistricting to remind them voting rights act is mandatory -- it's not something you can play with."

In the last Texas redistricting, a controversial 2003 plan crafted by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, one of the successful legal challenges came from MALDEF's questioning its compliance under the Voting Rights Act, Gold said. When the Lone Star State's congressional districts are redrawn this time, Gold is expecting some of the newly created seats to be Latino-majority. "We definitely know this Latino population growth should translate into some new districts," she said.

Florida Republicans face a similar dilemna: after making big gains in 2010, they will have trouble expanding the map and protecting sitting incumbents of their party while following the law. Complicating their headaches: two vaguely-worded "Fair Districts" amendments voters passed in the fall that requires legislators to draw compact districts without taking into account incumbency protection. Two minority House members, Democrat Corrine Browne and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, have already filed suits challenging the Fair Districts amendments. Most predict the new law's vague wording and partisan implications will lead to a court slugfest.

Hebert, who worked in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division for decades, said that the administrations of former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush let him and other Civil Rights Division lawyers enforce the law without political input. But Hebert, who fought DeLay's redistricting plan, said that political appointees in the second Bush administration had partisan implications at the top of their agenda, going so far as talking with Republican state legislators about the maps.

"The Republicans, DeLay and others, had the whole thing wired in the DOJ and they knew it," he said. Hebert doubted this administration would take the same approach. "The impression I get is that the people at Department these days are very sensitive to anyone accusing them to playing politics with the Voting Rights Act," he said. "They saw it firsthand during the Bush administration, they didn't like it and spoke out against it, and now it's their turn and they don't want anybody accusing them of doing it the same way."