By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Civil rights groups accused Texas Republicans of illegally drawing district maps with the intention of diluting the voting power of minorities at the start of a hearing on Monday on a long-simmering battle over redistricting.
The hearing before a three-judge panel at a U.S. district court in San Antonio could affect U.S. congressional races in the largest Republican-controlled state next year. It comes as the U.S. Supreme Court has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial discrimination.
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Plaintiffs including voters in contested districts and civil rights groups told the panel that Republicans, who dominate state politics, deliberately drew the lines to undermine the power of groups including Latinos, who make up about 40 percent of the state's population.
Texas did not deny that many districts are serpentine, but its lawyers argued the boundaries were drawn for Republican partisan advantage, which is legal. They dismissed claims the districts were drawn illegally with the intention to disenfranchise racial and ethnic groups, who typically tend to favor Democrats.
The hearing, expected to take a week, is part of a six-year legal battle over the maps. The panel in March dealt a blow to the state when in a 2-1 decision it ruled Texas lawmakers drew up three U.S. congressional districts to undermine the influence of Hispanic voters.
On the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in June to decide whether the U.S. Constitution limits how far lawmakers can go to redraw voting districts to favor one political party in a case that could have huge consequences for American elections. A decision is likely several months off.
In May, the Supreme Court found that Republican legislators in North Carolina had drawn two electoral districts to diminish the statewide political clout of black voters.
Texas has 36 congressional districts, with Republicans holding 25 seats from the state in the U.S. House of Representatives and Democrats 11. In recent elections, one district has been considered competitive.
"Every district is very Republican or very Democrat. Does that really help the system?" U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose district winds more than 150 miles through south Texas into parts of San Antonio, said in an interview.
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said in an interview: "The party that is in power always tries to use redistricting to their advantage. We see that in Texas on the Republican side and we see that in California on the Democratic side."
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Matthew Lewis)