Media covers latest voting rights lawsuit

Glad they finally noticed.

A group of Hispanic voters has filed a lawsuit challenging how Texas selects judges to its top two courts, arguing that statewide elections for the state Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals dilutes the voting strength of minorities.

The suit is the latest to allege the state’s election structure violates federal rules to protect blacks and Hispanics at the ballot box – and it is the most recent legal fight over whether at-large election systems in Texas unfairly hinder minorities.

Seven Hispanic voters, including the wife of a state senator from El Paso, are contending in the lawsuit that minorities for decades have been essentially shut out of the process of electing judges to serve on Texas’ two highest courts. The current system, they argue, violates the Voting Rights Act.


Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said Hispanics represent a huge swath of the state’s population growth but have reaped few political rewards in the process, especially when it comes to elections for the state’s top two courts.

“Now with a larger population and better political organization it might be a good time for an attack on the system,” he said, noting the timing of the suit could be politically advantageous for the Hispanic voters suing the state.

The lawsuit was filed last week; Rick Hasen noted it last Wednesday, and I blogged about it on Monday. The Trib also now has coverage, and they go into some additional detail.

Even the two Hispanics currently on the courts — [Supreme Court Justice Eva] Guzman and [CCA Justice Elsie] Alcala — were not originally elected to their seats. Both were first appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to fill vacancies. In fact, no Latino has ever been elected to those courts without first being appointed to their posts.

Guzman did not respond to a request for comment.

Alcala, who sits on the Court of Criminal Appeals, knows the optics could be better. Many of her cases involve Latino and African-American criminal defendants, but she’s the only person of color on her court.

“I don’t know if there’s a correlation, really, between the color of your skin and how you’re going to rule,” she said, but added: “I think that does cause people to perceive the court a different way.”

She does not take a position on the new legal challenge, but she did suggest another option for bolstering diversity among top judges: allow governors to appoint all them, with voters later deciding whether to retain them.

Perry appointed Alcala to the court in 2011. She won a new term in 2012 after running unopposed in the Republican primary.

“At the Supreme Court, a lot of minorities are appointed because the governor made a concerted effort to ensure there is balance.”

And on her court? She got lucky. “There just haven’t been vacancies,” Alcala said.


In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act could apply to elected judges — at least in state trial courts.

That decision was part of a long-running challenge to at-large judicial elections in 10 Texas counties. That convoluted legal saga sparked drama in Austin as two consecutive Texas attorneys general wrangled with Chief Justice Tom Phillips and district judges over how to handle the dispute.

“The political backstory in that case was fascinating, full of vintage Texas political intrigue and Capitol strategery,” Don Willett, a Texas Supreme Court justice since 2005, said in an email. The Republican justice, who has been mentioned by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as on his short list for future nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, said he could not comment on the latest challenge to Texas judicial elections.

“But as a political matter,” he added, “It’ll be interesting to watch from a safe distance.”

The complaint cites Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U.S. 380 (1991), which is the case that ruled that the Voting Rights Act could apply to judicial elections; the Trib story links to Houston Lawyers’ Assn. v. Texas Attorney Gen. (90-813), 501 U.S. 419 (1991), which held that the Roemer case (which was about elections in Louisiana) applied to Texas as well. Just because the VRA could apply to judicial elections, and did apply in that case, doesn’t mean it will in this case. Justice Alcala is quite right that we don’t have to elect Supreme Court and CCA judges at all; we could rely on an appointment system. I’m not advocating for such a system, but it does show that there’s more than one alternative available if the system we have now is found to be problematic. I’m sure the plaintiffs will have responses to both of these points, as will the state. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

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One Response to Media covers latest voting rights lawsuit

  1. Mainstream says:

    To win a Section 2 claim under the voting rights act, the plaintiffs have to jump over a number of hurdles about whether voting is polarized by race, whether minority preferred candidates are just losing due to partisanship, etc.

    They also will need to be able to show that if you drew 9 separate single-member state supreme court districts, that Hispanic adult citizen voters could make up the majority of such a district, or that black voters could make up the majority of such a district.

    I can imagine a Hispanic district in the Rio Grande valley which would achieve this, but I am not sure whether a second such district could be fashioned in the San Antonio area for adult citizen Hispanics. Unless we do the sort of egregious gerrymandering which was struck down in Vera v. Bush, I cannot picture any area of Texas where a majority black district can be created which would be 1/9 of the state’s population.

    So the likely net result would be a court permanently made up of 8 Republicans and 1 Democrat.

    This should be interesting.

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