AUSTIN (AP) – There are “genuine issues” of whether Texas Republicans in the Legislature intentionally discriminated against Hispanics in redrawing the state’s political maps, three federal court judges said in an opinion.

The Washington-based court sought to explain why it refused to approve redistricting maps drawn earlier this year by the Legislature. Texas is one of 16 states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and must get pre-approval from either the Dept. of Justice of the federal district court in Washington before changing any voting laws. The rule applies to states with a history of racial discrimination.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Washington court earlier this year to approve the new maps, but the Justice Department and Texas minority groups argued that the redistricting plans were discriminatory and asked the court to put them on hold. The court refused to approve the maps and set a trial date for Jan. 17 to hear more detailed arguments.

In a 44-page opinion filed late Thursday, the court explained why.

“We conclude that there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the plans were enacted with discriminatory intent,” the court wrote. “The ability (of minorities to elect a candidate of their choice) can rarely be measured by a simple statistical yardstick, as is the essence of Texas’s approach (to drawing fair districts).”

The groups opposing the maps argue that they are drawn to give whites a majority of seats in the Texas House, Senate and in the Texas congressional delegation, even though, according to the 2010 census, whites only make up 45.3 percent of the population. As an example, the congressional district map drawn by Republican lawmakers made voting-age whites the majority in 25 out of Texas’ 36 districts.

In arguments before the court, state lawyers denied any intentional racial bias. They explained that because Republicans control the Legislature, it was only natural that they drew maps that would benefit Republican candidates. The reason Hispanics are not the majority in more districts is because most Hispanics vote Democratic, not because of their ethnicity, the Texas attorney general’s office said.

The redistricting maps are also under attack in a second federal court case in San Antonio. Minority groups asked that district court to throw out the Legislature’s maps completely, claiming they are drawn to make sure minorities do not win elections. That court decided to wait until there was a resolution in the Washington case and drew up temporary maps for use in the 2012 election pending a resolution.

The court created those maps by working off the old districts and accounting for racial factors. Democrats welcomed that map, which gave them greater chances of winning more districts.

Abbott, however, said the San Antonio court overstepped its authority by overruling the Legislature’s maps before the Washington court had made a decision. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear that appeal on January 9.

In court papers filed Thursday, Abbott asked the Supreme Court to order the use of the Legislature’s maps until the two pending court cases are decided. If the Supreme Court agrees, the decision would permanently change how the Voting Rights Act is enforced by allowing the use of contested maps before a court can decide if they are discriminatory or not.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty has left many politicians in limbo, not knowing what their districts will look like, and therefore, whether or not they have a chance of winning. If the courts can reach an agreement on a map for the 2012 election by late January, the Texas primary is scheduled to take place on April 3.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)