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Carroll Robinson

City Council redistricting lawsuit dismissed

Marc Campos mentions this in passing:

This past Friday, a federal judge threw out Lopez v. City of Houston. That is the lawsuit filed by Vidal Martinez to force the City of H-Town to draw two more district council seats immediately. I guess it is not going to happen until 2011.

I’ve searched Google, and I’ve searched the Southern District Court webpage, and other than this May 8 tweet from Liz Lara Carreno, I can’t find anything more on this beyond what Marc has written. The lawsuit, you may recall, was filed in February to force the city to abide by the 1979 ruling that required two new district Council seats to be created when the population hit 2.1 million. The city’s argument was that they wanted to wait till after the 2010 Census, while the plaintiffs argued that sufficient data existed today to do the job in time for this November’s election. A copy of the suit is here, in RTF format. If anyone can point me to an opinion or an order or something so I can have some idea of the reason for the dismissal, I’d appreciate it. Thanks very much.

Casey on City Council redistricting

Rick Casey provides an update on the City Council redistricting lawsuit.

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.

No clue about the timeline, unfortunately. If the city wins and the two plaintiffs refile in state court, I have my doubts that they could get a ruling in time to affect things, at least for this election. Legal actions always take longer than I think they will. Thanks to Greg for the tip.

Interview with Vidal Martinez and John Castillo

As you know, I’ve been following the issue of Houston City Council redistricting with a lot of interest. After the lawsuit was filed a week ago Thursday, I wanted to speak to the protagonists and ask them some questions about their position and their desired outcome. I had that opportunity recently, and sat down with attorney Vidal Martinez and former City Council Member John Castillo, who was one of the key players in the 1979 suit that gave us the districts we have now. (Carroll Robinson was also going to be in on this, but he had a last-minute conflict.) I have to say, they make a compelling case for taking action now – among other things, Martinez points out that the original map was drawn with 1970 Census data; they didn’t wait till the 1980 Census was out to go ahead with it – and claim that it could be done in time for even the May special election to go forward, if all parties agreed to do it right away. You can listen to the interview here (MP3) and judge for yourself.

As I understand it, we are currently waiting on a court hearing and a Justice Department investigation. The defendants – the Mayor, the Controller, and all City Council members – have 20 days to give their responses to the suit, so we’ll presumably see some action in early March, which is to say shortly after the filing deadline for District H. In the meantime, let me know what you think about what Martinez and Castillo have to say.

The Census and City Council redistricting

Looks like Mayor White has an interesting ally in the city council redistricting debate.

Frumencio Reyes, the dean of Houston-area redistricting litigation, said he believes the mayor made the right decision in putting off redistricting.


Reyes, who has taken at least one Voting Rights Act case to the U.S. Supreme Court, said that if the city were to go ahead with redistricting now, it could disenfranchise local Latinos. His rationale echoed city officials: To undertake redistricting, municipalities must use U.S. Census micro-data to develop the precincts that would be used to draw voting districts.

But the Census only completes population counts at that level of specificity every 10 years, as it will do next year. To add two districts, the city would have to use data from 2000. Based on advice from his city attorney and Reyes, White has opted to wait until the 2010 Census results are in, asserting that any plan devised before then likely would not withstand a legal challenge.

“Using the old census numbers would create a tremendous disadvantage for Hispanic voters,” Reyes said. Of all the demographic groups in Houston, the Latino population has grown the most in the past 10 years and has the most to lose by poorly drawn voting districts, he said.

I’ve been arguing that since we’ve waited this long we’d be better off waiting till the 2010 Census numbers are in, so Reyes’ logic makes sense to me. It still doesn’t quite address the issue of why we didn’t take action in 2006, but if you accept Reyes’ reasoning, it’s plausible to think that the 2000 figures would have been sufficiently skewed by then as well. If nothing else, this is a pretty strong answer that the Mayor can give to his critics on this issue.

Reyes is not the only community leader finding himself in an unusual position. Former City Councilmen Carroll Robinson and John Castillo are backing the lawsuit. Like Reyes, Castillo was involved in the 1979 settlement with the Department of Justice that brought about the 2.1 million provision. As an aide to Councilman Ben Reyes in the late 1970s, he pushed the city to add a second Hispanic district, researching the population himself and turning in an alternative plan to what the city presented to the Department of Justice. He played a key role in fashioning District H.

“I’m disappointed that the city has not tried to be compliant with the court order and the settlement that was reached,” Castillo said. “It’s obvious that they did know in 2006 that the threshold had been reached and should have begun to make plans to implement the new districts as soon as possible.”

White announced his intent Wednesday to set up a campaign to involve community leaders, churches and council in the upcoming Census count. The “Complete Count” committee, an idea used during the 2000 Census, would seek to encourage participation in the Census. City officials said the committee will make a special effort to find “hard to reach” communities that some demographers worry are undercounted.

Robinson said the “complete count” effort was a good idea but separate from the requirements in the charter to redistrict. He castigated council members for a separate action taken Wednesday that essentially ratified the 2000 Census count of around 1.95 million people for voting purposes, even though the city has for years used far higher population figures — now reaching around 2.2 million — in official documents, including budget-related calculations

More on that “complete count” story here:

White will chair the “Complete Count Committee” in an effort to publicize the importance of every Houston resident’s participation in the census next year. Federal funding, charity grants and political redistricting at all levels depend on the accuracy of the count.

“People need not be afraid of filling out the census form,” said Councilman James Rodriguez, who will be vice chairman of the committee. “There is a concern in the immigrant community that it will be used to determine their immigration status and it will be turned over to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they’ll be deported.”

Census numbers are never turned over to immigration officials, Rodriguez said, but he added that a massive public relations effort is needed to encourage participation. In 2000, doorhandle fliers used on the East Side featured a prominent Catholic bishop’s photo and instructions in English and Spanish.

Rodriguez wants the committee to begin work in the next few weeks.

Stace is also on the Mayor’s side in this, as is Council Member Rodriguez, who voted with the Mayor on that ordinance Robinson references. I have no idea how the court battle will go, but yesterday was a good day for the city’s position on the public relations front.

More on the city council redistricting lawsuit

Here’s today’s version of the story, which adds a little more detail to yesterday’s.

Population consultants and planning officials have said that redistricting now would require the city to rely on 2000 census data outlining population figures in voting precincts. Although the city has done that before, officials said, updated population figures showed those efforts to have been flawed.

Redistricting now, he said, could lead the city to violate the Voting Rights Act by potentially undercounting minorities through the use of outdated census data.

“I support the Voting Rights Act,” [Mayor Bill] White said. “We think the most important step to make sure there is fair representation of all citizens is to have maximum participation in the 2010 census.”

{Plaintiffs Vidal] Martinez and [Carroll] Robinson said the city has several options for getting the most accurate population information, including using data from the census and demographic specialists.

“It’s a sad day when it takes a group of private lawyers to have to ask the Justice Department and the courts to do what the city is legally and morally obligated to do,” Robinson said.

He and Martinez said they felt goaded into action as the council prepared to vote next week on a measure that ostensibly declares the population for voting purposes to be around 1.95 million, and the council districts to be evenly divided according to population.

That’s a “comical farce,” Martinez said.

Council members have admitted as much during open meetings, questioning whether their votes on the matter would ratify a misleading stance.

[Annise] Parker, the city controller, is a candidate for mayor and has declared her support for redistricting now. She said Thursday that the city has staked out an “inconsistent” position on its population.

In budget-related decisions, she said, the council already has cast votes asserting a higher population, and she has used a 2.2 million population figure in bond-related documents, as well.

I’m going to guess that the other candidates for Mayor will share Parker’s position on this, if for no better reason than I’m sure they’d all prefer to have this matter dealt with, or at least largely out of their hands, before taking office. Who wouldn’t want to avoid dealing with it, especially right out of the gate?

As I’ve said before, given that we put this off till now I think it’s reasonable to wait till the 2010 Census numbers are in before tackling this task. But given that we shouldn’t have put this off in the first place, I also think it’s reasonable to force the issue now. My main concern right now is the disposition of the District H special election. I don’t want it to be delayed by this lawsuit. I have no idea what a timeline is likely to be for any court decisions that would affect it, however. I’ve got a copy of the lawsuit here (rich-text format document, thanks to Miya for the link). Can any lawyers out there give me an opinion as to how this may play out? I’m not looking for a guess on how it will be decided, just on how long you think it might take to get to some kind of resolution, and whether or not the May and/or November elections are in doubt. Thanks.

UPDATE: On a tangential note, I just got an email announcing Lupe Garcia‘s official entry into the District H race. His press release is beneath the fold.


Lawsuit filed to force city to redistrict

Former City Council Member Carroll Robinson, who has been a strong proponent for redistricting City Council boundaries and drawing two new districts now rather than waiting till 2011, has said that the city should not fear any litigation that might result from such an action. Clearly, Robinson himself does not fear it.

Community activists have filed a lawsuit alleging the City of Houston has violated the Voting Rights Act by putting off the redistricting of city council boundaries as required by its own charter and a decades-old court settlement.

The lawsuit, which seeks to force the city to begin redrawing voting boundaries, could have far-reaching implications, including delaying an upcoming special election to fill the council seat vacated by Sheriff Adrian Garcia and, possibly, even the November elections, plaintiffs claim.

Mayor Bill White, all 13 council members and City Controller Annise Parker are named as co-defendants in the suit, which was filed in federal court today.


The city’s failure to take that action has galvanized minority leaders, who see the creation of new seats as a chance to increase the number of minorities on City Council.

“The result of that breach is lack of representation at City Hall by a significant portion of the community,” said Vidal Martinez, a former Port of Houston Authority commissioner who is litigating the suit with former city councilman Carroll Robinson.

“The need for leadership to protect the voting rights of Houstonians is why we have acted today to seek the help of the U.S. Justice Department and the federal court to make sure that the city charter is complied with,” Robinson said.

In a city made up of 41.7 percent Hispanics, 24.3 percent African-Americans and 5.3 percent Asian-Americans, according to the U.S. Census, there is one Latino council member, four African-Americans and one Asian-American.

The irony, of course, is that if the plaintiffs get what they want, the delay of the special election in District H will mean there will continue to be only one Hispanic on Council for however much longer. I guess they believe that the short-term loss is worth the long-term gain. Speaking as a resident of District H, I can’t say I’m terribly happy about this.

I just can’t excuse the decision to not take action in 2006, which would have settled all of this by now. Given that we put things off then, it makes sense to say we should wait till 2011 now. In a vacuum, I’d totally agree with that. But we could have headed this off, and we chose not to. I don’t see how the path we didn’t take could have been any messier than the one we appear to be about to take.

Here we go again with City Council redistricting

Or at least, here we go again with arguing about when we should be redrawing City Council lines.

Mayor Bill White’s decision to delay redrawing the boundaries of City Council districts has angered numerous community activists, who say his stance is defying Houston’s charter.

Under a 30-year-old legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the number of council members “shall increase” from 14 to 16 when Houston’s population hits 2.1 million. That settlement later was incorporated into the city’s charter.

The mayor, City Council members and officials all acknowledge that the triggering population threshold has been crossed.

But White and several council members have resisted the push for redistricting, asserting that the city lacks population data needed to redraw district lines accurately. That data will come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial survey in 2010. Pressing on without it, they say, could lead to a court challenge under federal voting rights laws.


Houston has had more than 2.1 million people since 2006, according to population estimates the city has been using in official documents. To create new districts and change boundaries, however, the city would have to use detailed population estimates for specific tracts of land, city officials said. Though demographers are assumed to estimate the overall city population accurately, the only accurate tract-level data would have to come from the 2000 Census.

Redrawing district lines now would, in effect, be based on almost 10-year-old data, said Jerry Wood, a former city planner and redistricting expert. He noted that the city went through redistricting in 1982 and 1985, based on dated census figures. The estimates used those years were shown to be wrong in the 1990 Census, Wood said.

That possibility, and any lawsuit that could stem from it, led City Attorney Arturo Michel and Chief Administrative Officer Anthony Hall to advise the mayor against redistricting now.

“I have no doubt that our actual population exceeds the threshold number, but there are substantial legal issues about whether federal law allows us to draw districts based on guesses about where people live,” White said.

I appreciate that perspective, and as far as it goes, I agree we’ll have much more accurate data real soon now. But we’ve been talking about this for over three years, and the city could have taken action in 2006 in time for the 2007 elections, but demurred on the grounds that we weren’t really sure we were past the 2.1 million mark. That seems to have been an erroneous belief. Anyway, the last time this came up, the word was wait till 2010. Which makes sense in a vacuum, but it didn’t have to be this way. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who are complaining about it again now.

Presently, in a city made up of 41.7 percent Hispanics, 24.3 percent African-Americans and 5.3 percent Asian-Americans, there is one Latino council member, four African-Americans and one Asian-American.

“We’re the fourth-largest city in America. Let’s act like it,” said Vidal Martinez, an attorney and former Port of Houston commissioner who urged council members recently to take up redistricting now.

But council members noted that much of the city’s growth that would be addressed in redistricting has happened in west Houston.

“We’re going to have to peel away (new districts) from existing western, white districts,” Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said. The problem with drawing out districts to address a certain population, like a Hispanic population, is Hispanics are scattered across the city.”

We’re likely, though certainly not guaranteed, to have another Latino member after the special election for District H. That would make Council exactly half Anglo, half non-Anglo, and while that’s not really aligned with the overall population, I’ll bet it’s a pretty fair representation of the population that actually votes. Some Latino leaders have a summit coming up in three weeks to talk about issues like that – see Marc Campos for details. More voter participation, and more Latinos running At Large would make a big difference even with the current lines.

If you’ve read any of my precinct analysis posts from the 2008 election, you know I agree with Council Member Clutterbuck about the electoral map out west. Another question that will need to be dealt with for the eventual map-drawers is what to do with District E. It really doesn’t make sense to glue Kingwood and Clear Lake together, but splitting them apart is likely to create two districts that will tend to elect Anglos, instead of just one. If the goal is to increase minority representation, that will come into conflict. Whenever we do get around to this, it’s going to be a tricky and contentious task.