A federal lawsuit that aims to change Spring Branch ISD’s election system to bring more representation to the school board will likely be delayed for months, pending decisions in several other cases that could impact the legality of the suit altogether.
The uncertainty surrounding the lawsuit comes at a time of renewed concerns about inequity in the district as it faces budget cuts and several potential school closures that many fear disproportionately impact the district’s underserved communities.
Resident Virginia Elizondo filed the lawsuit against the district in 2021, arguing Spring Branch violates the Voting Rights Act and creates a lack of representation by holding at-large elections, a system in which each voter in the district casts their ballot for every trustee position.
Community members have long critiqued the district’s inequities, illuminated by the way Interstate 10 runs through the district and creates two contrasting sides. Currently, every board member resides in neighborhoods south of I-10, which is defined by rows of affluent subdivisions and starkly differs from the underserved neighborhoods on the north side.
Elizondo and residents advocating for better representation want the district to switch to a single-member district system, which breaks a district up into sections with a similar number of residents who then vote for a singular trustee that lives in their area.
For their part, district leaders have adamantly opposed switching to a single-member district system, arguing the at-large system is most effective. No board members were made available for an interview about the case Thursday.
But now, it will likely be months before the case moves any further, an attorney representing Spring Branch said. On Wednesday, Judge Sim Lake canceled the trial that was set for Monday, Dec. 4, pending the decision of two other cases in higher courts that will likely impact the suit.
Both cases, before two separate Circuit Courts of Appeals, seek a decision on whether it’s legal for private citizens — like Elizondo — to bring forth lawsuits against governing entities under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 2 states that “no voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any state or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color” — which Elizondo argues the district does with its current election setup.
“The judge is waiting to see what higher courts say about the law in this area before proceeding with a trial, to ensure that we understand what the law is before we go forward,” said Lucas Henry, an attorney representing Spring Branch.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that only the Department of Justice or the Attorney General is entitled to bring such lawsuits against government entities. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said the opposite.
Depending on the outcome of both cases, it could be several months or over a year until the district’s case can move forward, Board President Chris Earnest said in a statement. If there’s a conflict between the decisions of these cases after rehearings, it’s likely the U.S. Supreme Court would hear an appeal, Henry said. And if it’s ruled that private citizens cannot bring forth such lawsuits, the case against the district could be dismissed.
See here, here, and here for some background on the lawsuit. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote about the Eighth Circuit firebomb, for which so far the expert consensus seems to be that it’s a bridge too far even for this SCOTUS, but when they’ll get to it and what possible opportunities they’ll have to be weasels about it remain to be seen.
Also, too, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a different way to attack the Voting Rights Act, one that goes at the question of at large versus single member districts, which is what this case is all about. There’s not a circuit split on this yet and that decision wouldn’t apply here, but you have to think this might come up as well at some point, and that too would add delays and the risk of a dismissal. So things are going great around here.