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Supreme Court struggles with Texas election case

WASHINGTON — Several members of the Supreme Court appeared frustrated Monday as they surveyed the available options and deadlines in a voting rights case from Texas that could help decide control of the House.

The case is a result of a population boom in Texas, which gained more than 4 million people in the last decade, about 65 percent of them Hispanic. The growth entitles the state to four additional congressional seats.

The Texas Legislature, controlled by Republicans, enacted new electoral maps for both houses of the state Legislature and the federal House of Representatives in May and June to account for population growth, and Gov. Rick Perry signed them into law in July.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though, the maps may not be used until they are approved, or "precleared," by either the Justice Department or a special three-judge court in Washington. Texas officials chose to go to court, and they have so far not received clearance.

In the meantime, a second special three-judge federal court, this one in San Antonio, drew a competing set of electoral maps when Texas failed to obtain prompt federal clearance. The question for the Supreme Court justices is whether the court-drawn maps give enough deference to the Legislature's choices. The answer may help determine whether the new districts elect Democrats or Republicans.

Several justices asked just how quickly they would have to act to make sure elections in Texas, where the primaries have already been pushed back to April, can proceed in an orderly way. "We're all under the gun of very strict time limitations," said Chief Justice John Roberts.

The special court in Washington rejected the state's request for summary judgment, saying the state Legislature in Texas had used "an improper standard or methodology to determine which districts afford minority voters to elect their preferred candidates of choice."

The special court in Washington plans to hold a trial this month and may issue a final decision in perhaps a month. There appeared to be some sentiment on the Supreme Court to allow it to complete its work before the justices rule.

Justices take shots at EPA

Conservative members of the Supreme Court seemed outraged Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency's actions in a four-year battle with an Idaho couple who want to build a house on land the EPA says contains sensitive wetlands. Justices across the ideological spectrum appeared troubled by the EPA's position that Mike and Chantell Sackett do not have the right to go court to challenge the agency's wetlands decision. Justice Antonin Scalia assailed the "high-handedness" of the agency, and Justice Samuel Alito described some of the EPA's actions as "outrageous." The justices will rule in the case by summer.

Times wires

Supreme Court struggles with Texas election case 01/09/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 9, 2012 11:26pm]
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