AUSTIN, Texas — Texas politicians were closely studying new political maps issued by a federal court to decide whether their next move would be to run, drop out or sue.
A three-judge panel on drafted the redistricting maps for the 2012 election following months of legal wrangling, setting the stage for the twice-delayed Texas primaries to finally be held May 29. At stake is who will win four new seats that could alter the balance of power in the U.S. House and whether Republicans will retain a supermajority in the Texas House.
Nine groups sued in San Antonio's federal court to block maps drawn last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature, claiming the maps discriminated against minorities. A federal court in Washington, D.C., also refused to clear the maps, saying there was evidence they violated the Voting Rights Act.
The San Antonio court released interim maps Tuesday, pending decisions in both of those cases. Under the congressional map, Republicans and Democrats appeared poised to split the four new seats.
Democrats and some Hispanic groups said they thought the court's new maps were still unfair but stopped short of saying whether they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has already stepped in once to throw out court-drawn maps, and another appeal would put the May 29 primary date in jeopardy.
"The new interim maps issued late today are a substantial improvement from maps previously issued by the San Antonio court," Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott said. "As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous, clear direction to the district court, these new interim maps more accurately reflect the decisions of elected Texas legislators."
Minorities made up 89 percent of the population growth in the state, and the Legislature's map would have led to only one new minority elected to Congress from Texas. Minority rights groups accused the Legislature of drawing maps that discriminated against them, but Democrats hardly cheered what the court delivered Tuesday.
"These maps may be slightly better than those passed by a radical legislature, but they still grossly misrepresent the demographics of our state," the Texas Democratic Party said in a statement.
The judges released the maps without an opinion but said one would be forthcoming. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the lack of an opinion for now made it difficult for his group to consider its next move.
"Make no mistake, we believe that any map, even an interim plan, must acknowledge 3.7 million new minority Texans," Martinez Fischer said.
Republican and Democratic candidates alike said they were examining the maps to see whether they should run. The court is expected to reopen the candidate filing period next week to allow politicians to jump in or out based on the new maps.
The Republican Party of Texas, meanwhile, simply celebrated the fact that there were maps and that a May 29 primary remained possible.
The Texas primaries originally loomed as the biggest prize of next week's Super Tuesday before the redistricting fallout forced the state to push back the primary date. Texas has the most delegates of any state beside California, and the state had wanted the chance to play kingmaker in the Republican presidential primary before the race is settled.
Under the Legislature's map, Hispanics were expected to be able to elect a candidate of their choice in one out of the four new districts. In the court-drawn map, they appeared likely to pick up at least two.
Analyzing the changes the court made to the state House map was harder to discern. Texas Democrats did not get as many seats in the 150-member House as it expected. Based on past voting patterns, out of 150 districts, Republicans would expect to win 85, Democrats will likely win 50 and 15 are up grabs.
Time is running out for Texas to hold primaries, and the maps are intended to get Texas through the 2012 election cycle. The fight over redistricting has already seen the Texas primaries delayed from March 6 to April 3 and now May 29. The last day Texans could vote is June 26.
The ruling does not resolve the two court cases still pending but is only an interim measure. The San Antonio court must still make a decision on whether the original maps drawn by Republicans last year discriminates against minorities and needs to be changed. That decision is dependent on separate lawsuit in the Washington, D.C., federal court on whether the original maps are legal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Washington court said it would probably issue a ruling sometime in March.
Paul Weber reported from San Antonio.
Texas redistricting website: http://www.tlc.state.tx.us/redist/redist.htm