The burning question of whether the city of Houston must immediately expand its 14-member City Council by adding two new districts in time for November's election, or whether it can wait two years for detailed census information, is now before U.S. District Judge Sim Lake.
The legal question sounds simple: What constitutes a change?
But this involves lawyers, so nothing is simple.
One side says adding the two seats would be a change.
The other says not to do so would be a change.
Both are arguably right.
[Vidal] Martinez and [Carroll] Robinson are suing under a section of the Voting Rights Act that requires that all changes in the voting system be approved either by the Justice Department or by a federal court. They argue that the city's decision not to follow the 1979 agreement by adding two seats is a change and therefore needed federal approval.
To the contrary, argues the city's lawyer, Austin voting rights specialist Robert Heath. Adding two seats would be a change that required Justice Department approval. Since the city has not changed, the suit is not valid.
Martinez says he expects Lake to rule within a couple of weeks. If the judge agrees with Martinez and Robinson, the matter goes to a panel of three federal judges for further argument. If the city loses there, it can appeal straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If Sims rules for the city, there is no appeal.
No problem, says Martinez. "We'll go to state court and ask a judge to require the city to obey its own charter and add the districts," he said.