By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A panel of three federal judges late on Friday approved a plan to delay the Texas primary elections from March 6 to April 3, a move that could be a blow to Republican Governor Rick Perry's presidential hopes.
A likely victory in Texas on March 6 would have given Perry a surge of momentum on Super Tuesday, when 10 other states are holding primaries or caucuses. Now, Texas's primary will be toward the end of the calendar.
The delay came amid a series of legal challenges to the state's legislative and congressional redistricting maps. Groups representing minority voters have sued to block new districts drawn by the Republican majority in the legislature, saying the districts illegally dilute the voting strength of the state's growing Latino population.
The legal challenges have left candidates with no clear idea of the boundaries of the districts they would represent, making an early March primary impractical.
The proposal approved by the court in San Antonio was an agreement between the Texas Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Texas. The runoff election is set for June 5.
Separate primaries were also considered -- one on March 6 for the county-wide and statewide races not affected by redistricting, and a later one for state legislative and congressional races. But local officials protested the cost of two primaries.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hold a hearing in January on whether the same panel of three federal judges overstepped its authority by imposing congressional and legislative maps over the ones designed by the Legislature. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., also in January, will consider whether the Republican redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Justice Department believes that it does.
Texas is one of a handful of states required to clear election changes with the Department of Justice, due to a pattern of minority vote suppression in the 1950s and 1960s.
"We are glad to have worked out an agreement which we feel works best for Texans," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie said. "Given the less than ideal circumstances, we think that this election schedule is a workable solution that will create the least confusion for the voters."
Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri agreed.
"We are hopeful that with both a timely ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent finalized maps, that this agreement not only preserves the original structure of a unified primary, but provides us enough time to accomplish it in a fair and orderly fashion," Munisteri said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)