Washington (CNN) – A coalition of Hispanic groups in Texas say they are close to an out-of-court settlement with state officials over the disputed boundaries of new legislative and congressional districts.
Both sides in the political and legal dispute have been meeting privately in recent days, hoping to end a months-long standoff over the extent of voter representation for the state's growing Hispanic and minority population. Federal courts in Texas and Washington, DC have been involved in trying to carve an acceptable map in time for the state's April 3 voting primary. A special federal judicial panel was holding a key hearing Friday in San Antonio.
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At issue are competing maps for the Texas state legislative and congressional districts - created first by Republican lawmakers that favored their political base, and later by a federal court to give minorities greater voting power.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week tossed out the judicially-created map, and the justices ordered the federal panel to try again.
Leaders of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the key plaintiffs in the legal challenge, said a settlement with the state Attorney General's Office may be imminent.
"Since the early days of the legislative session, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus had been asking for Republican law-makers to negotiate fair maps that reflect the growing diversity of the State of Texas. I am encouraged by the Attorney General's efforts to now strive towards that goal," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of MALC. "Any hope to arrive at a consensus will require that proposed compromise maps reflect the diversity of Texas and ensure that 3.7 million minority Texans are not be swept under the rug for the sake of partisan politics."
The office of Attorney General Greg Abbott had no comment on the negotiations.
The initial court-drawn map was imposed after Democrats and minority groups in Texas challenged the original plan approved by the GOP-led state legislature.
The political stakes are huge: Texas gains four new congressional seats based on the newly completed census, and this ruling could help determine whether Democrats can wrest control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans.
The legal stakes are just as important - creating standards courts must use when evaluating voting boundaries. This is the latest election-related dispute for the Supreme Court this year. Continuing, separate challenges to campaign spending laws and state voter identification laws will soon be presented to the court.
The high court's ruling sent the issue back to the Texas-based federal court to resolve. All sides– including the justices - had earlier expressed concern whether a final resolution from three federal courts now considering the Texas maps –including the Supreme Court– would come in time before the November elections.
With no clear map currently to rely on, Texas voting districts and candidacies remain in political limbo. This latest high court ruling will compress the time office-seekers can eventually file and run for congressional and legislative seats. The state's primary election is set for March, but could be rescheduled for as late as June.
Abbott had filed an emergency appeal in November, saying the map approved by the federal panel in San Antonio was an unconstitutional intrusion into the legislative process and was "fatally flawed."
The current court-ordered maps would increase the number of districts dominated by minorities, especially Hispanic voters. Texas is among several mostly Southern states that are required under the landmark Voting Rights Act to have any changes to voting laws or rules approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
In a separate appeal two years ago, conservatives on the high court seemed to believe that key enforcement section of the law –known as Section 5– was unconstitutional. It was unclear whether the court now has the majority to strike down the provision, which would free Texas and other states from federal oversight.
Another sticking point is that a separate federal court in Washington is deciding whether to approve- or "preclear"- the original plan approved by the legislature, a requirement under the Section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act. A bench trial in that case began last week, with a ruling expected early next month.
That has left three federal courts involved in the voting map dispute.
Texas is getting four new congressional seats –more than any other state– after the latest census showed its population grew by 4 million people. The plan drafted by the Texas three-judge panel would give minorities the majority in three of those congressional districts, and could give Democrats more seats statewide. With 36 congressional seats, the fate of Texas could have national implications in the fight over control of the House.
"Ninety percent of the growth in this state in the last decade was minority growth," said Martinez Fischer, a Democratic state representative. "Sixty-five percent of that alone, Latino. So you would expect these new congressional districts would reflect the minority populations that created the opportunity."
The Hispanic-led coalition said the GOP-drawn map would mean zero net seats for minority voters in both congressional and legislative seats.
Under state rules, redistricting plans approved by the legislature can be challenged in court, with judges having the power to craft alternate maps.
Republicans in the state have a super-majority in the legislature, meaning they needed no Democratic support to pass their plan. A similar party split a decade ago led Democratic lawmakers to flee to neighboring Oklahoma in an effort to kill the 2000 redistricting bill.
The state's Republican governor, former presidential candidate Rick Perry, supported the map passed by the legislature, but has not signed it into law while the plan is challenged in court.
All states are required to redo their voting boundaries following the recently completed nationwide census, conducted once every 10 years.