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Jose Garza

Interview with Jose Garza

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

So it’s been a busy couple of weeks for the voter ID litigation. There was the motion by the Justice Department to delay the hearing on whether the law was passed with discriminatory intent, which everyone expects is a prelude to them switching sides in the case. Then there was the decision by the Supreme Court to not hear an appeal of the original ruling that found a discriminatory effect of the law, given with a promise by Chief Justice Roberts that they will be back later. With so much going on, I wanted to make sure I understood it all, and to that end I have for you an interview with Jose Garza, who serves as counsel for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the plaintiffs in this suit. We talked about both of these events in the case and what they may mean, and a few other items besides. Here’s our conversation:

I feel like I have a better handle on what’s happening, and I hope you feel the same. Let me know what you think.

Voting rights lawsuit filed over Texas statewide judicial elections

This happened on the same day as the Fifth Circuit ruling on voter ID.

[Wednesday], the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), Garza Golando Moran, PLLC, and Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of individual Latino voters alleging that the method of electing Texas’s Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges violates the Voting Rights Act. The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals are the two highest courts in the state and decide critical issues of state civil and criminal law, respectively.

“Courts in the state of Texas should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “Instead, the way in which Texas elects judges to two of the state’s highest courts denies Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice. Bringing Texas state courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act can help instill greater public confidence in the state’s justice system.”

All 18 high court judges in Texas, nine for each court, are elected statewide. Because White Texans comprise the majority of the citizen voting age population in the state, and because Latinos consistently prefer different candidates than do Whites, Latino-preferred candidates are almost never elected to the highest levels of the state’s judiciary. Such vote dilution is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act and the state could develop and implement a more representational electoral method.

Texas’s Latino citizen voting age population (CVAP) comprises 26.5 percent of the state’s CVAP while White Texans comprise 56.4 percent. With Latinos in the minority and voting polarized along racial lines, Latinos have been significantly underrepresented on both courts for decades. Since 1945, only two of the 48 judges to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, a mere 4.2 percent, were Latino. Over the same time period, only five of the 77 justices to serve on the Supreme Court, or 6.5 percent, were Latino.

Plaintiffs in the case include six individual voters from Nueces County and an individual voter from El Paso County.

“For too long the voice of the Latino community has been missing from the critical secret conference rooms of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Carmen Rodriguez, plaintiff in this case and longtime civil rights attorney and activist from El Paso. “It is vital that we bring the promise of the Voting Rights Act to the selection process of the members of these august judicial bodies.”

Because Texas’s judges largely represent only one subset of Texas voters, there are serious questions as to whether all of the circumstances of a diverse population are fully considered. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears all death penalty cases in the state. From 1977 to 2010, of the 92 executions of Latinos nationwide, 78 were executed in Texas. Recent Supreme Court decisions of critical importance to racial minorities, including a May 2016 ruling limiting school funding for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, were issued without so much as a dissent.

“All Texas citizens should have the right to cast a meaningful, undiluted vote for their most important courts,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. “For decades, that right has been denied to Latinos in Texas. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was designed precisely to deal with this circumstance.”

“For too long, the Latino community in Texas has had no say in who represents them on the highest courts in the state,” said Jose Garza, a civil rights attorney and partner at Garza Golando Moran, PLLC. “The recent school finance ruling is a clarion call to every minority in Texas: Your voice will not be heard by these courts. Now is the time to listen to the millions of Texas minorities who want a seat at the table to help decide the matters important to our community. I am proud to represent these brave clients and work with some of the best legal minds in voting rights to fight for my state and my community.”

“Being able to participate fully in our electoral system is a fundamental right of all citizens,” said Neil Steiner, a partner at Dechert LLP, which is representing the plaintiffs pro bono. “We look forward to vindicating those rights for Texas’s Latino population.”

Here’s the complaint. The introduction gives you an overview of what this is about:

1. The Supreme Court of Texas (“Supreme Court”) and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“Court of Criminal Appeals”) are the courts of last resort in Texas. They are the final authorities on questions of Texas civil and criminal law, respectively. Together, the two courts render enormously consequential decisions that profoundly affect the lives of all Texans.

2. According to the 2010 Census, Latinos, a significant and rapidly growing racial group, constitute 37.6 percent of Texas’s total population and 26.5 percent of Texas’s citizen voting age population. However, Latinos have been prevented from participating fully in the election of Texas’s high court judges because of the way those judges are elected. That election method, in which all judges for both courts are elected in at-large statewide elections, unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of Latino citizens and prevents them from electing their candidates of choice.

3. The Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals each has nine members. Because voting is racially polarized, that is, white voters as a group and Latino voters as a group consistently
prefer different candidates, the at-large method of election functions to deprive more than one quarter of the State’s eligible voting age population from electing judges of their choice to any of the eighteen seats on the two courts.

4. The Latino population and citizen voting age population are sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in at least two fairly-drawn single-member districts; the State’s Latinos are politically cohesive; and the State’s white citizen voting age majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat Latino voters’ preferred candidates. Because of these circumstances, as well as the historical, socioeconomic, and electoral conditions of Texas, the at-large election method for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301 (“Section 2”). Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986).

5. For these reasons, plaintiffs respectfully pray for this Court to issue: (1) a declaratory judgment that the use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (2) an injunction against the further use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals; (3) an order requiring future elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals to be conducted under a method of election that complies with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act; (4) an award of costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs, including expert witness fees; and (5) such additional relief as is appropriate.

I found this on Wednesday afternoon via Rick Hasen while looking at his coverage of the voter ID ruling. Basically, this is the at-large versus single-member-district debate taken statewide. If you scroll down to the end of the complaint and look at the list of lawyers involved, you will see that one of them is Jose Garza, who has successfully argued voter ID and redistricting cases on behalf of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. (Both of Garza’s partners, including Martin Golando, are also involved.) Amy Rudd, the first attorney listed in the complaint, was pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and MALC in the voter ID case as well. Point being, this is an experienced legal team taking this on, and it could wind up being a pretty big deal, yet so far the only news coverage I have seen is from Texas Lawyer, KTSA, and the El Paso Times, which notes that six of the plaintiffs are from Nueces County, with the seventh being El Pasoan Carmen Rodriguez, a civil rights attorney and wife of Texas Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. I very much look forward to seeing how this plays out.

Abbott versus Garza on voter ID

They’ve battled in court, and now they’re battling in the news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday called a lawyer for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus unethical for his suggestion that people in the Rio Grande Valley attempt to vote without a photo ID.

Jose Garza, a lawyer who represents MALC in its fights against the state of Texas on voter ID and redistricting, reportedly encouraged voters in Edinburg to try to cast a ballot in next month’s city council elections without a photo ID. State lawmakers passed the voter ID bill — which requires voters to show one of several state- or federally issued forms of ID to vote — in 2011, but it was kept on hold until a June U.S. Supreme Court decision made its implementation possible.

“I would encourage everybody who wants to test this law to go and attempt to cast their ballot using their voter registration card,” Garza told the Rio Grande Guardian last week. “Let us test the impact of this law. We need to be able to measure how many people this law kept from voting.”

Abbott, whose office sued the Obama administration when the federal government originally blocked the ID requirement, said Monday that Garza is the one guilty of trying to suppress the vote, the common argument for opponents of the photo requirement who call the measure a 21st-century poll tax.

“It is always unethical for a lawyer to advise someone to violate Texas law. Even worse, Garza’s advice does not inform voters to bring one of the acceptable forms of voter ID,” Abbott said in a statement. “Instead, in an attempt to create a false impression that voter ID suppresses votes, the unethical advice is to come to the polls without the needed ID.”

Garza has since released a statement that fired back at Abbott.

Today, the attorney general questioned my integrity and said that I am advising voters to come to the polls without the photo identification that is now required to vote. Let me be very clear and set the record straight, I have never encouraged Texans to violate the law.

Everyone who is legally registered and eligible to vote ought to go vote. For those that are eligible and registered, but cannot obtain a valid photo ID as required by SB 14, I would advise them to also go vote and possibly cast a provisional ballot. Do not stay home and allow a discriminatory law to suppress your vote and voice. That is my message to Edinburg’s voters.

A federal court denied preclearance to Texas’ voter/photo ID law, stating that the undisputed record of evidence demonstrated that the voter identification requirement would have harmed the right to vote for many Texas minorities. Just because Section 5 is not in effect at the moment does not mean that the retrogressive effect of the photo identification requirement does not exist. I would advise the attorney general to do everything in his power to address the concerns of the D.C. Federal District Court and alleviate the undue burden that is being placed on the poor to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

General Abbott’s statement about my personal integrity is yet another ill-advised tactic to evade responsibility and accountability for seeking the implementation of an unjust and, I believe, unconstitutional law. If the citizens of Edinburg cannot vote, it is not because of me, but because of a law designed to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters.

Emphasis in the original. Speaking of which, let’s go to the original story to see what really was said and meant.

Jose Garza believes a new Texas law requiring voters to bring along a certain type of photo identification is unconstitutional. He wants to bring a lawsuit against Texas and for this he needs practical examples of registered voters being denied the right to vote because they did not show up with an approved photo ID card.

“Anybody who is validly registered to vote and has a registration card or is clearly on the registration rolls should go and attempt to vote anyway, even if they do not have a photo ID,” Garza told the Guardian. “I believe the photo ID law is unconstitutional.”

[…]

“The photo ID legislation may be the law of the land in Texas but I believe it is unconstitutional. The only way you can challenge it is to find people who have been denied the right to vote because they did not comply with this specific term,” Garza said.

“So, I would encourage everybody who wants to test this law to go and attempt to cast their ballot using their voter registration card. Let us test the impact of this law. We need to be able to measure how many people this law kept from voting.”

[…]

“You can be denied the right to vote if you do not have the right type of photo ID. If you have a driver’s license that has been expired for more than 60 days that is not good enough. If you have a photo ID from your university or college, that is not good enough. If you have a photo ID from work, an employee from a school district, a city, the state of Texas or the federal government, that is not good enough. But if you have a photo ID from your concealed hand gun license, you can vote,” Garza explained.

“If you were involved in an accident and you have a DWI and your license has been suspended, even though you are otherwise eligible to vote, if your license has been suspended for more than 60 days, you cannot use that as an ID at the polling place and you will not be allowed to vote.”

Edinburg is a university town. Garza said UT-Pan American students that are registered to vote should take along their student photo ID card to the polls and offer this as a photo ID card. If they and others who are on the voter rolls are denied the right to vote, they should call MALC, the ACLU, MALDEF, LULAC, or the South Texas Civil Rights Project, Garza said.

A reporter put it to Garza that if such voters carry out his advice they may could be denied their legitimate right to vote and that this could influence the outcome of the Edinburg special election. Garza acknowledged this was the case but said the fight to stop voter suppression in Texas was worth it.

“It is better than staying home. If a voter is denied the right, they should call us or LULAC or the Texas Civil Rights Project or the ACLU or MALDEF. All of these groups are interested in the impact of this law. They will want to hear from those who are being denied the right to vote because they did not have the appropriate photo ID,” Garza said.

“If you are a student and all you have is your student ID you should try to vote, show it. They are going to be denied but they are otherwise eligible. A student photo ID is as good a proof of who you say you are as a concealed hand gun license is.”

On the one hand, Garza is clearly saying that anyone who is registered to vote but doesn’t have one of the very few types of legal ID should go and vote anyway. If nothing else, seeing how many provisional votes wind up getting cast and where they are will help clarify things as the next round of litigation moves forward. You know that I agree with Garza about the unconstitutional nature of voter ID, and that I believe Texas’ ridiculous and arbitrary restrictions on what ID is required is strong evidence of the discriminatory intent of this law. Still, Garza does appear to be calling for what is basically civil disobedience here. I admire the sentiment, but it’s not clear what would be gained by it. There’s no capacity for shame among Abbott and his acolytes, and whatever the courts say the way to win on this is by winning elections. Casting needless provisional votes, however strong a statement, won’t help with that. Go vote whether you have the required ID or not, but do bring it if you have it.