By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A special federal judicial panel ruled for the second time in two months on Thursday that the Republican-led Texas Legislature deliberately redrew political boundaries so as to unfairly diminish voter clout of the state's growing Latino population.
A divided three-judge panel found that the boundaries of several state legislative districts were reshaped with the intention of illegally diluting the strength of the Democratic-leaning Hispanic electorate for the benefit of the Republican Party.
The panel ruled that the redrawn boundaries were designed to either fragment cohesive Latino communities among multiple districts, or to lump Hispanics into a single jurisdiction and thus limit their overall sway.
Similar gerrymandering tactics of "cracking" and "packing" were found last month by the same panel in redrawn boundaries for three of the state's 36 congressional districts.
It was not immediately clear whether Texas would appeal the latest decision, which pertained to state legislative districts encompassing some of the state's largest cities, including Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
As in last month's 2-1 decision, Thursday's ruling was agreed upon by U.S. District Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia of San Antonio, appointees of former Republican President George W. Bush and former Democratic President Bill Clinton, respectively.
The third member of the panel, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jerry Smith, appointed by former Republican President Ronald Reagan, dissented in both opinions.
He blasted the latest decision as "clearly erroneous," writing that partisan advantage, not race itself, was the rationale for drawing the districts as they were.
Generally courts have ruled that shaping districts based on race or ethnicity is illegal, but drawing boundaries to gain political advantage for the majority party is not.
Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa welcomed the findings of Thursday's 153-page majority opinion.
“The Republicans have dealt Texas a deep moral wound,” he said. “They haven't just been cheating to gain an edge in the political game. They have been deliberately holding back Texans from having a voice in their own government.”
Republicans have dominated all statewide non judicial offices in Texas for more than 20 years, and have frequently used that advantage to redraw political maps to benefit their party.
(Editing for Steve Gorman & Simon Cameron-Moore)