WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court late Friday granted a request from Texas Republicans and said it would intervene in a momentous dispute over redistricting and the voting power of minorities.
The justices, setting oral arguments for Jan. 9, are about to enter one of most contentious state battlegrounds in the wake of the 2010 Census and the new national round of redistricting.
The justices blocked Texas from using state legislative and congressional maps drawn by a lower court as a substitute to a state map. That court had said the state map could undermine the voting rights of Latinos and blacks. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other state officials said the lower court exceeded its authority and should have deferred to the Texas legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.
The court agreed to decide the constitutionality of the state's redistricting plans for the state Senate and House and for the state's 36-member delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The justices' decision to take up the case revs up an already politically charged court term. In November the justices said they would hear a series of challenges to the Obama-sponsored health-care law.
At the center of the Texas dispute is federal protection for minorities' voting rights, particularly in places such as Texas which had a history of racial discrimination at the polls. A key question is how much authority judges have to redraw a legislature's map when the new boundaries have not yet won federal approval and as candidate registration for the primaries is beginning.
Friday's case emerges from a Texas voting-rights controversy that has been pending before lower court judges in San Antonio and Washington, D.C.
The justices acted on an emergency request from Gov. Perry and other state officials challenging the lower court's 2-1 decision. That lower court drew an interim map, saying primary-election deadlines were looming and the state legislature's map had not received the required federal approval under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Challenges by state Democrats and Hispanic advocacy groups have been filed under the landmark voting-rights law and the Constitution's equality guarantee.
Texas is one of nine mostly Southern states covered by a part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires places with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before changing their district maps or voting laws.
Between the 2000 Census and 2010, the population of Texas grew by more than 4 million, to 25 million. The vast majority of the growth was in Latino communities. The Hispanic population grew by about 2.8 million, the black population by about 523,000 and the white population by about 465,000.
Yet, as the lower court noted, the plan drawn by the state legislature reduced "minority opportunity districts." The court said its interim map "merely restores the minority opportunity districts to their original configuration." U.S. District Court Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez formed the majority in that November ruling. U.S. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith, the third member of the panel, dissented.
In urging the justices to block the interim map and take up the test of federal voting-rights law, Washington lawyer Paul Clement, representing Perry, said the lower court should have deferred to the state legislature. He noted that Smith called the new map "a runaway plan that imposes an extreme redistricting scheme."
The Texas Democratic Party had urged the justices not to intervene. The primary election is scheduled for March 6.