AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A federal court said Friday it will not delay Texas' primary elections and ordered the state to use political maps drawn by the Legislature - but only temporarily, while the judges sort out a complex and possibly precedent-setting lawsuit.
The three-judge panel in San Antonio gave both sides in the lawsuit over Texas' voting maps reason to claim victory. The court will not draw its own map for the 2014 elections, as civil rights groups wanted, but it also did not throw out the lawsuit completely, as Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott requested.
The court order, signed by all three judges, also allows the civil rights and minority groups to argue that all changes to Texas election law should be reviewed by federal authorities before they can be implemented. The Justice Department has sought to intervene in the case after a recent Supreme Court decision requiring Congress to make changes to the Voting Rights Act.
The fundamental issue of the lawsuit, filed in 2011, is whether the Legislature illegally drew political maps that intentionally diminish the voting power of minorities in Texas. Abbott's office has argued in court papers that Republicans who control the Legislature drew maps to boost the chances of their party - which is legal - and that if minorities who vote predominantly Democratic are hurt as a result, that does not constitute a civil rights violation.
That argument could eventually put this case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court threw out the maps the Legislature drew in 2011 and, in a separate case, a federal court in Washington ruled that the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in drawing them. The San Antonio court drew temporary maps and delayed the 2012 primary elections by five months. Abbott advised the Legislature to formally adopt the court's maps in 2013, even though minority groups say they are still discriminatory.
The judges said Friday that those maps will be used for the 2014 election so that it can go on as scheduled, but the court reserved the right to change them once the lawsuit is finally decided, probably next year.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and a party in the suit, welcomed the court's decision not to throw out the case.
"The court is saying just because Republicans in the Legislature changed the map in 2013 doesn't mean they've changed their behavior, and this case has always been about discriminatory purpose and intent," he said. "The court stressed that this is going to be an interim map only ... and there is still a chance these maps will change."
Lauren Bean, spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General's Office, welcomed the court order.
"The state will continue to respond in court to the unwarranted challenges to the new maps by the Obama administration and various plaintiff groups," she said. "Texas has prevailed each time the redistricting litigation has reached the Supreme Court and remains confident that the Legislature's maps will be vindicated, either at the San Antonio federal district court or at the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary."
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