The U.S. Supreme Court did something out of the ordinary last week: It responded to an appeal when there was technically nothing to appeal.
Justice Samuel Alito temporarily blocked a ruling that found two congressional districts in Texas discriminated against minorities. Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case aren’t entirely sure why he responded to the state's appeal, however.
“There are a number of decision points and if it sounds complicated, welcome to Texas redistricting,” Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice, says.
A federal district court in San Antonio ruled last month on the constitutionality of the congressional map – but the scope of the ruling was just the constitutionality. Specifically, the court found that two districts violated the Voting Rights Act.
But the lower court didn't do anything that Texas officials could appeal, says Jose Garza, an attorney representing plaintiffs.
“You can appeal to the Supreme Court under two circumstances: There’s a final judgment, and we don’t have that yet,” he says. “Or there's an injunction ordering the state to do one thing or another, and there is no such injunction.”
And yet Alito blocked the district court’s ruling as the state had requested.
Garza says all of this could slow down the process of the lower court taking the next steps in asking the state to change its maps. He says it appears Alito is concerned about timing, though, because he asked the plaintiffs to respond quickly to the state's appeal, which they did.
“There’s urgencies to get this thing finally resolved, because there's … a major election coming in 2018," Garza says, "but at the same time [these appeals] stall out the process."
In the end, though, it is more than likely that all the Supreme Court justices will have to weigh in, and that’s why Li says Alito’s temporary stay isn’t that big of a deal.
“A lot of people have asked, sort of, ‘Is it really significant that Justice Alito stayed this?’ And the answer is, really, not,’” he says. Often everything is left "in place until the whole court has a chance to decide.”
Li says we should know more about what happens next with the state’s congressional maps when this all shakes out – probably next week.