Judges allow depositions from Texas lawmakers in Voting Rights Act trial

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EMERGENCY FILE

Ten different lawsuits allege that the Texas Legislature’s new electoral maps violate the Voting Rights Act. (Brandon Seidel via Shutterstock)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday morning denied a request by three Texas lawmakers to postpone depositions in lawsuits seeking to block redistricting legislation in that state. No dissent was noted in the brief order, which clears the way for depositions for next month.

The order came amid a dispute that arose after the Texas legislature in October 2021 passed new maps for congressional and state elections. Ten different lawsuits followed, filed by individual voters, civil rights groups and the US Department of Justice, alleging the cards violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in electoral politics.

As part of their case in a three-judge district court, the challengers want to depose Texas lawmakers about the process that led to the new maps and the lawmakers’ motivations for passing them. The district court denied lawmakers’ motion to suspend depositions, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on May 20 denied a request to adjourn depositions.

Three Republican members of the Texas House of Representatives appeared in the Supreme Court on May 21, asking the justices to intervene. They argued that allowing the depositions to go ahead would violate legal doctrines that typically bar lawmakers from having to answer questions from other branches. government about their actions. If lawmakers are deposed, they argued, challengers will be allowed to probe “the very workings of the legislative process, examining the thoughts, feelings and motivations of lawmakers for their legal acts.” They told the justices there are other ways to look at why the legislature enacted the redistricting maps — for example, by looking at the history leading up to the decision and the events surrounding it. And there’s “no way not to ring the bell once they’ve testified,” the lawmakers stressed.

The Justice Department and private challengers urged the court to allow the depositions. Legislators, they pointed out, are not immune from having to testify in all trials; rather, the question in these circumstances is whether legislators can invoke a more limited principle known as state legislative privilege.

District courts, the challengers argued, have routinely denied lawmakers’ requests to bar testimony in suffrage cases. Additionally, they continued, the district court in that case established ground rules for depositions that would allow lawmakers to assert state legislative privilege in response to specific questions; their answers to these questions could not be used without the permission of the court. And US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the Justice Department, dismissed lawmakers’ concerns that the depositions “would take them away from the duties of their office”. “Legislators,” Prelogar noted, “are three of Texas’ 181 parties. legislators of the time”, and the next legislative session is not scheduled until January 2023.

On May 23, while the dispute over the depositions was pending before the judges, the district court rejected many of the protesters’ suffrage claims and gave them until June 6 to file a revised suit. Prelogar told the judges in a May 26 filing that the challengers still intended to depose the three lawmakers after they filed their new lawsuit. A deposition (from Texas Rep. Brooks Landgraf) is scheduled for June 23. The other two depositions (of Texas Representatives Ryan Guillen and John Lujan) are not expected to take place until June 13, Prelogar wrote.

This article was originally published in Howe on the Court.

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