Friday, January 27, 2012

San Antonio judges mull later date for TX primary

The three federal judges charged with drawing the maps that Texas will use in the 2012 primary elections pushed the date of those primaries later into April, and left uncertainty as to whether that would be final due to continuing questions swirling about the maps themselves.

After testimony from various parties -- Chad Dunn of the TDP, David Mattax for the TX OAG, attorneys for Reps. Joe Barton and Quico Canseco -- and a conference call with the judges in DC hearing the case over pre-clearance there, Justices Orlando Garcia, Xavier Rodriguez, and Jerry Smith finally put out of its misery the April 3rd unified primary date in their hearing which began at 1 p.m this afternoon.

There were some remarkable exchanges between the panel's judges and the Republican lawyers and representatives. Mattax at one point indicated that the judges did not have to 'get Section 5 (the pre-clearance provision) right', since the maps being drawn were interim ones anyway. Judge Rodriguez responded: "Are you saying you won't appeal our map if the DC court says something different on Section 5?"

Mattax' response: 'What I'm saying is the Section 5 conclusion doesn't have to be exactly the same, because the maps are just interim.'

Rodriguez: "Well, we thought we were just drawing interim maps the last time."

Judge Smith then asked David Mattax: "If the Supreme Court says that districts violate Section 5, how can we ignore that on interim maps?" Mattax replied: "Because they are only interim maps." Judge Smith: "I completely disagree that we can ignore (Section 5) concerns", and followed up with: "Doesn't the DC court's ruling already say Section 5 issues are not insubstantial?" Mattax responded that he did not think the SCOTUS ruling used the words 'not insubstantial'.

The conversation then turned back to settlement efforts. Mattax: 'We're going to work all weekend. Try to get something Monday.'

This is a good time to point out that about the time the hearing in San Antonio began, Gary Scharrer of the SAEN posted that the parties involved were negotiating a settlement.

A leading player in the state’s redistricting turmoil said this morning he’s hopeful that both sides are closing in on a settlement that will salvage Texas’ April 3 primary.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has been meeting with representatives of minority groups that sued the state last year to stop new political boundaries from taking effect on grounds the decade-long maps ignore profound population growth of minority Texans – mostly Hispanics.

“I am confident that the parties are working in good faith and have enough time to craft a compromise that will assure that the April primaries go on as scheduled,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, chairman of the House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is one of the parties suing the state.

Caught off guard as he was preparing for a 1 p.m. court hearing in San Antonio before three federal judges refereeing the redistricting fight, Martinez Fischer acknowledged that lawyers for his organization have been talking with Abbott and others in the case about a settlement. Martinez Fischer said he could not share details.

A spokesman for Abbott said the attorney general will hold off commenting until the court hearing.

Consensus seemed to emerge around 3:45 p.m. that everyone might come to an agreement on an April 17 unified primary -- two weeks later than currently scheduled -- contingent upon questions settled by the parties over the weekend. Judge Garcia directed the two sides to provide a list of the district maps not in dispute by Monday or Tuesday of next week "if you want to have an election in April."

When the conversation turned to military ballots (they have to be printed and mailed, thus requiring the most lead time of anything associated with an election), Steve Munisteri, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, responded that service members could be allowed to vote electronically and still satisfy the Texas Election Code's MOVE Act (Texas Insider has a nice, brief explanation in the first paragraph here). Judge Rodriguez was skeptical of that, and a moment later when Munisteri cited the TEC for not being able to move the conventions, the judge pounced.

"But you are asking us to change the MOVE Act. Why not just change the election code?"

The chairman said that Texas Republican voters would be disenfranchised by splitting the primary, moving the presidential part to the summer. "Why would you be OK with waiving certain parts of the election code but not others?" replied Rodriguez.

There was no indication from those present how Munisteri answered that question.

There followed more give-and-take between the litigants regarding the costs of splitting the primary, whether the state or other plaintiffs might or might not object to the forthcoming new maps, and more deep-in-the-weeds legal and political machinations. But the smirking was induced when Texas county election administrators began to testify, gently spiking the bad ideas from GOP redistricting lawyers and Munisteri by describing what would be able to functionally happen in their municipalities. The Bexar County elections official, for example, said that electronic ballots were not an option ... because they simply don't have email addresses for all service members.

Thanks to the Twitter feeds from the scene by Michael Li, Ross Ramsey, Nolan Hicks, Rebecca Acuna, Alana Rocha, and many others. You can read their play-play-play which I used to compose this post at the Twitter hashtag #txlege . Ramsey has his report up, likely with updates to come, and Kuffner has a bit more. Li's most recent Tweet, just before 5 p.m., says:

Probably pretty obvious but 2/1 filing deadline and ballot order draw next week are being cancelled.

The hearing continues; I'll post more updates as warranted.

Update: The Hill reports extremely positive news regarding settlement negotiations.

The Texas state attorneys defending the state’s GOP-drawn redistricting plans from court challenges have reached out to settle litigation, according to sources in the state. The settlement would give minority groups and Democrats what they’ve been demanding from the start: more heavily minority, Democratic-leaning House seats.

The result would likely mean at least four more Texas Democrats in Congress as of next year, a good start on the 25 or so seats Democrats need to win to retake control of the House.

“They’re backed up against the wall and have to come to some agreement and it’ll be awfully favorable on our end,” said one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Another plaintiff agreed.  “It’s clear they know they’re in a vulnerable position and that’s why they want to settle,” he said.

Update II: In a clear indication of the ongoing confusion, this Austin American-Statesman headline -- "Federal judges warn April 3 primary in jeopardy, urge redistricting compromise" -- contradicts what they quote Judge Orlando Garcia saying in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the story: "We don't know when (the primaries) might be, but we know it won't be April 3"...

That would be way beyond the dictionary definition of 'jeopardy'.

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