n the home of Juneteenth, the culmination of Galveston County’s decade-long effort to undermine the political power of Black and Latino voters is on trial.
In the only county-level redistricting case which the federal government has stepped into, this week saw the start of what is expected to be a drawn-out court hearing examining whether the county violated the federal Voting Rights Act and unconstitutionally used racial gerrymandering in 2021 when drawing commissioner court districts. The new maps ultimately reduced the voting strength of the coastal county’s residents of color.
The trial before Judge Jeffrey V. Brown, a Trump appointee who has given each side 40 hours to make their cases, opened to a packed courtroom in the federal courthouse on Galveston Island. It will focus on how the county capitalized on its first opportunity to redraw precincts without federal oversight to dismantle the sole commissioner precinct in which Black and Latino voters made up a majority of the electorate
It will trace how the court chopped up Precinct 3, where Black and Latino residents had been able to build political coalitions and select their representative on the court. In the redistricting cycle after the 2020 census, a district that sliced the middle of Galveston County down to the island, including diverse pockets of four cities where most of the county’s Black population lives, became a much smaller district limited to the northwestern end of the county that includes majority-white communities.
Black and Latino communities were split up so that white voters could make up at least 62% of the electorate in each of the four precincts. Because white voters in Galveston — like Texas generally — tend to support different candidates than Black and Latino voters, the new map effectively quashed their electoral power.
The new map doesn’t just leave Black and Latino voters with less opportunity to influence elections, it eliminates their influence altogether, said Sarah Xiyi Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“At the end of the day, there is no meaningful dispute that for decades Galveston County’s Black and Latino community has been able to elect the candidate of their choice continuously and now under the challenged map, that community has zero opportunity,” Chen said in court. “You cannot get less opportunity than zero.”
Residents challenging the map, including claims of intentional discrimination, have been joined by three local branches of the NAACP, a local LULAC chapter and the U.S. Department of Justice, which found the commissioners court’s move to dismantle Precinct 3 so grievous that it stepped in four months after the map was adopted.
During opening arguments, the federal government pitched the case as a textbook case, falling squarely within the framework used to enforce a key section of the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court had recently reaffirmed.
Quoting from the high court’s June decision, DOJ attorney Catherine Meza said the court had “iterated the essence” of vote dilution claims, like the one they’ve raised against the county, as a certain electoral structure that minimizes or cancels out the votes of people of color.
“That is precisely what occurred here in Galveston County,” Meza said.
The case also offers a look back at another of the high court’s voting rights rulings — its 2013 decision to upend what was known as preclearance, a long-established protection that required changes to voting maps to clear federal reviews before taking effect.
In legal filings and in their opening arguments, Galveston County’s attorneys have dropped in challenges to legal precedent that allows voters to use the Voting Rights Act to protect coalition districts where politically cohesive racial groups combine their voting strength as they do in Galveston and in diverse suburban communities.
The county’s litigation team includes lawyers with the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that has regularly challenged voter registrations and made false or unsupported claims about voter fraud. In a factsheet distributed to reporters at the Galveston County trial, the organization plainly argued that extending the VRA’s protections to include multiracial coalitions “would transform the law from protecting against race discrimination to protecting political coalitions.”
It’s an issue voting rights experts have warned could be a key fight in the litigation over the mapmaking from this redistricting cycle and one that could play out in future appeals of the Galveston case, possibly up to the Supreme Court, which has not yet weighed in on the issue.
And even though the Supreme Court recently rejected Republican arguments that the Voting Rights Act places too much emphasis on race, including a pitch for race-neutral tests, the county’s attorneys indicated they are hoping to wedge open the door to relitigate that as the case is appealed through the federal courts.
At the close of opening arguments, already hitting the court’s time limit, [attorney representing Galveston Joe] Russo briefly hinted they’d be making that case for a wholesale change of the VRA.
“The time for the need for race-based legislation is over,” he said.
See here, here, and here for some background. Democracy Docket has a long summary of the case if you want a deeper dive. The plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss in April, with the judge granting that they had standing to sue and setting the trial date. As noted, the recent SCOTUS ruling on Alabama’s Congressional redistricting, which that state is doing its best to defy, could be a big factor here. It could also be the means to give SCOTUS a second whack at fully dismembering the VOting Rights Act, so don’t get too optimistic. Expect that it will be a few months before we get a decision, and after that we begin the appeals process. You know the drill, we’ll be following it again when the Texas legislative and Congressional redistricting cases get to trial. KUHF has more.