Efforts by the Obama administration to wring protections out of a weakened Voting Rights Act begin Monday in Texas over allegations that Republicans intentionally discriminated against minorities when drawing new election maps.
A federal trial in San Antonio comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that Texas and 14 other states with a history of voting discrimination no longer need permission from Washington before changing the way elections are held.
The Justice Department and minority rights groups now want a three-judge panel to decide that Texas still needs that approval under a historically obscure portion of the Voting Rights Act that has drawn new attention since the heart of the 1964 civil rights law was struck down.
Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to use "every tool at our disposal" to preserve voter safeguards after the Supreme Court decision.
"This is a case that will make law," said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.
A decision by the San Antonio court isn't expected for months.
The Justice Department has also joined voting-rights lawsuits in North Carolina, which last year enacted sweeping election-law changes, including a tough new voter ID mandate.
The Texas trial surrounds voting maps approved by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Under statehouse and congressional districts drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature, Republicans fortified their ability to win elections and remained poised to preserve their majority for the next decade.
Federal judges threw out those maps and drew new ones with more districts that lean Democrat. But left unsettled is whether Republicans drew the original maps with the intent to racially discriminate and dilute minority voting strength.
Republican legislative leaders have long argued the maps were drawn merely to benefit their party's candidates and have rejected accusations of intentional discrimination.
But if judges find intentional discrimination, Texas could be required to continue seeking federal preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. It has rarely been employed because the same effect was formerly achieved through the more muscular part of the law that is now eliminated.
The trial comes at a time when Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is campaigning to replace Perry next year.
"We should not be subject to being opted in under Section 3 because it's completely unwarranted," Abbott said.
The Justice Department wasn't actively involved in the Texas lawsuit until it sought approval to join the case last year. Multiple minority rights groups, including the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, have taken the lead against the state until now.
Attorneys say the Justice Department have been aggressively preparing for trial and not staying on the sidelines.
"They've been taking a prime role in depositions and discovery," said Robert Notzon, an attorney for the Texas NAACP. "They're not sitting back."