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Southern Coalition for Social Justice

Second lawsuit filed over Galveston redistricting

Similar grounds, different plaintiffs.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

A coalition of civil rights groups in Texas filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Galveston County, alleging that the county’s redistricting plan intentionally discriminates against a growing minority population in the Gulf Coast community.

The complaint, shared first with CNN, marks the second lawsuit that seeks to overturn maps approved by the Republican majority on the county’s governing body. Last month, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county on similar grounds — in a redistricting dispute that has garnered national attention.

The new lawsuit — brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of local branches of the NAACP and the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens Council 151 — alleges that the new map diminishes the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by splitting up the only majority-minority precinct.

The new map endangers the reelection of Stephen Holmes, the county’s only Black commissioner, who has served on the board for 22 years. Holmes is next on the ballot in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges the Republicans majority pushed through a “racially discriminatory map” that “largely took place behind closed doors.”

Sarah Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the map — and the process used by the Republican majority in the county to approve it — “egregious examples of people in power … exercising that power to dilute the votes of racial minorities.”

[…]

Both this lawsuit and the complaint by the Justice Department underscore the difficult legal terrain that voting rights advocates now face in challenging alleged discriminatory maps. This cycle marks the first round of redistricting since the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That provision required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting.

With those powers gone, the Justice Department’s lawsuit relies largely on another section of the federal voting rights law, Section 2, which puts the burden on the federal government to prove its case.

The lawsuit filed Thursday cites Section 2, but also argues that map violates the constitutional rights of Black and Latino voters to equal protection of the law.

Chen said civil rights groups are looking for “different pathways” in voting rights cases “because victory is never assured.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is co-counsel along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has a tweet thread about this as well. I haven’t read through the two of them so I can’t say where they are specifically similar and different, but the coverage suggests they have overlap. It won’t surprise me if these two lawsuits are eventually combined. I remain less than confident that the plaintiffs will get the relief they seek given the hostility the federal courts have shown towards voting rights in recent years, but I will say that I’m old enough to remember a day when a white majority reducing the political power of communities of color for the reasons of “because we can, that’s why” was considered to be in poor taste. I feel like we should try to return to those days, but what do I know? Daily Kos has more.

The dark side of redistricting litigation

The state of Texas is taking a big swing in defense of its gerrymanders, and if they connect it’s going to be devastating.

Beyond the immediate legal fight over whether Texas lawmakers again discriminated against voters of color when drawing new political districts, a quieter war is being waged that could dramatically constrict voting rights protections nationwide for years to come.

For decades, redistricting in Texas has tracked a familiar rhythm — new maps are followed by claims of discrimination and lawsuits asking federal courts to step in. Over the years, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly been ordered to correct gerrymandering that suppressed the political power of Black and Hispanic voters.

The pathway to federal court has been through the Voting Rights Act. Key portions of the landmark law have been weakened in the last decade, but Texans of color still find a way to file lawsuits under its Section 2, which prohibits discriminatory voting procedures and practices that deny voters of color an equal opportunity to participate in elections.

Those protections are the vehicle being used by voters and various civil rights groups to challenge political maps for Congress and the state legislature drawn by Texas Republicans in 2021 to account for population growth. In what promises to be a protracted court fight, Texas will defend itself against accusations that it discriminated — in some cases intentionally — against voters of color.

But tucked into the legal briefs the state has filed with a three-judge panel considering the redistricting lawsuits are two arguments that reach far beyond the validity of the specific maps being challenged.

First, the Texas attorney general’s office is arguing that private individuals — like the average voters and civil rights groups now suing the state — don’t have standing to bring lawsuits under Section 2. That would leave only the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue alleged violations of the act, putting enforcement in the hands of the political party in power.

Second, the state argues that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting issues at all.

Should either argument prevail — which would almost certainly require it to be embraced by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court that has already struck down other portions of the law — the courthouse door will be slammed shut on many future lawsuits over discriminatory map-drawing and voting practices.

“Fundamentally, this Supreme Court thinks we are past the time in which we need the Voting Rights Act, so of course if you’re a state like Texas, you’re going to bring every argument that’s ever been made to challenge the constitutionality of the rest of it,” said Franita Tolson, a vice dean and law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

[…]

The turnover at the Supreme Court has cracked the door for “audacious attacks on Section 2,” that would have “never had a chance” under previous iterations of the court, said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who specializes in voting law. Texas is trying to push the door wide open.

In legal briefs, Texas’ argument that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting relies almost exclusively on a series of comments in opinions by Justice Clarence Thomas, who has plainly endorsed the idea in cases dating back to 1994. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee who joined the court in 2017, echoed the view in one of Thomas’ recent opinions.

In a recent case over Arizona voting laws, Thomas and Gorsuch also joined an opinion indicating they agreed with the argument Texas is offering now that private individuals cannot sue to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The fallout if the Supreme Court agreed with the state on either argument would be radical, upending long established procedures for litigating claims of discrimination in voting and redistricting, and making it harder to enforce what has endured as the chief federal protection for voters of color in a post-preclearance world.

Covering its bets, the state is also pressing a backup argument — that even if individual voters are allowed to sue under Section 2, organizations that serve voters of color cannot bring claims on their behalf. That could knock out of the box groups like the NAACP and LULAC who may have more resources and membership across the state to prop up the complex challenges.

If affirmed by the court, that prospect would put even more pressure on private individuals to protect themselves from alleged discrimination by the state, said Noor Taj, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing various civil rights and community groups that serve Texans of color, particularly Asian Texans, in a lawsuit against the maps.

“It’s either taking their rights altogether or increasing the burden,” Taj said. “Both ends of that are problematic and incorrect.”

If the high court ultimately decides redistricting lawsuits simply aren’t allowed under Section 2, the recourse left for Texans of color to challenge political maps would be litigation under the U.S. Constitution’s broader promise of equal protection.

That would require challengers to show lawmakers intentionally discriminated against them — “which is the hardest case to win, particularly before a Supreme Court,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The state’s efforts to overturn protections for voters of color is ironic given its long history of violating the same law it is now looking to gut, said Perales, who is suing the state over its latest maps on behalf of a group of individual voters and organizations that represent Latinos.

“Since the beginning of the modern era of decennial redistricting, Texas has been found liable for violating the voting rights of Latinos in every single cycle,” Perales said.

The more “aggressive attacks” on Section 2 have come as it’s getting harder for Republicans to comply with the law while preserving their power, Hasen said.

If you can’t comply with the law but you have the power to change it so that you don’t have to, well, it’s obvious what you’ll do. The state’s arguments have not gained any purchase with the three-judge panel at the district court level, but we know where it goes from there. The Democrats would like to do something at the national level about this, but as long as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are deciding votes, they don’t actually have the power. (Beating Ken Paxton this fall would also help, but this argument is going to get before SCOTUS one way or another eventually regardless.) And so we get to watch this play out like a slow-motion train wreck, and we’re all standing close enough to it to be collateral damage. Isn’t that nice?

Redistricting litigation update

Reform Austin shows that the state’s legal defense strategy against the various redistricting lawsuits is “You can’t sue us!”

Because of the clear racial gerrymandering, multiple groups are launching legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act. The state has now responded to the one being brought by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mi Familia Vota, the Mexican American Bar Association, and others, asking for a dismissal. Among many other claims, the state alleges that private citizens do not have standing to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Supreme Court has never decided whether Section 2 contains an implied private cause of action,” reads the filing.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to gerrymander a district for the purpose of suppressing voting power based on race. Strictly political gerrymandering was deemed acceptable in a 2019 Supreme Court case, but the two intentions are often intermingled. The majority of minorities tend to vote Democrat, making any political gerrymandering also racial almost by definition.

The filing by the state does admit that some legal opinions have implied that Section 2 does give private citizens standing to sue but says that these implications are inconsistent with other Supreme Court decisions. The case specifically cited is Alexander vs. Sandoval, which found that regulations enacted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not confer the right to legal action in a case of non-intentional discrimination. The filing also claims that the Voting Rights Act did not actually create a right to vote in spite of the discrimination, and therefor there is no right to be contested under its statute.

Not a whole lot to say here, as Texas has employed a variation on that strategy in a whole host of lawsuit defenses lately. I don’t know what the district and appeals courts will make of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a warm welcome at SCOTUS. Hey, have I mentioned lately that a new and updated federal voting rights law would be a good idea? Just checking.

Reading that article made me go Google news hunting for anything else I could find on redistricting litigation, since not all developments make their way into the sources I read regularly. In doing so I found that all but one of the existing federal cases against the redistricting maps have been consolidated into one, the LULAC v Texas case, as it was the first one filed. You can see all of the filings related to this omnibus case here. When I read the order combining the cases, the motion for which had been partially opposed, I learned that there were two other lawsuits that I had missed the first time around. Let me sum up here. The cases that I knew about that are now under this banner: The LULAC/MALDEF suit, the Voto Latino suit, the federal MALC suit, the Senator Powell lawsuit over SD10, and the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee lawsuit.

The cases that I missed the first time around: The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, representing the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and Damon James Wilson, formerly an inmate in Dallas County, representing himself as he was counted in one Congressional district while incarcerated but intends to return to his actual domicile in another CD when released, and says he should have been counted in that district.

The one federal case that remains separate from the others is the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, which the court rejected for consolidation on the grounds that about whether the Lege was allowed to draw maps at all, and not about the composition of the new maps.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, we now have two federal lawsuits challenging different aspects of Texas redistricting, and one state lawsuit that focuses on the county line rule and how it was allegedly violated in Cameron County in the drawing on HDs 35 and 37. You’ll be quizzed on this at a later date, so please make sure you take good notes.

ACLU and others sue over new redistricting maps

The count is now seven.

Civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging new Texas state legislative and congressional district plans as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders violating both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. The suit details an inadequate redistricting process that lacked transparency and led to discriminatory voting maps that dilute the political power of communities of color, particularly Black, Latino, and Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), brought the case on behalf of the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee, OCA-Greater Houston, the North Texas Chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Americans Public Affairs Association, Emgage and 13 individual plaintiffs in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division.

“Texas’ latest gerrymanders seek to blunt the rightful political power of fast-growing populations of Latino, Black and Asian American and Pacific Islanders voters by carving up the chance to elect their preferred candidates to the United States Congress, the Texas House of Representatives, and the Texas Senate,” Allison Riggs, Co-Executive Director and Chief Counsel for Voting Rights with SCSJ. “This intentional discrimination of voters of color in clear violation of the VRA and U.S. Constitution cannot stand.”

The Fair Maps Texas Action Committee includes the ACLU of Texas, Clean Elections Texas, League of Women Voters of Texas, Our Vote Texas, National Council of Jewish Women-Greater Dallas Section, Texans Against Gerrymandering, and Common Cause Texas.

“Today, the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee is honored to join our partners from across the state to challenge the unconstitutional district maps recently passed by the State of Texas. Lawmakers have willfully ignored the rich diversity of our growing state and have instead chosen to draw maps that discriminate against voters of color,” said organizations from the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee in a joint statement today. “From the very start of this legislative process, we worked to bring diverse people together so that all marginalized communities receive fair representation. Despite our best efforts to advocate for a fair and open redistricting process, the politicians in charge chose to shut the public out in order to force through blatantly gerrymandered maps. Now, we will take action together to challenge these unlawful maps because our democracy is threatened.”

[…]

The complaint specifically seeks to remedy discriminatory districts in many of Texas’ fastest-growing cities and suburban areas, where the political power of communities of color is exploited to the benefit of more conservative white areas. For example, the lawsuit identifies how Texas’ state House maps unfairly crack AAPI voters in Fort Bend and Collin counties among multiple districts, while House Districts 54 and 55 in Bell County brazenly split the city of Killeen, where 40% of residents are Black. The complaint also focuses on state Senate and congressional maps where new districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metros intentionally divide AAPI, Black, and Latino voters. The suit also points out that Texas’ congressional maps create two new majority-white districts in a state where 95% of population growth stems from communities of color.

That’s from the ACLU press release. I’d gotten an email with a notice of the video conference they had about this on Tuesday, but as of Wednesday the only news story I saw about this was this one in Newsweek. Sometimes these things take a couple of days for that. Anyway, you can see a copy of the complaint here. It is limited to Congress and the two legislative chambers, so no claims about the SBOE.

The other litigation so far includes the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, the LULAC/MALDEF suit, the Voto Latino suit, the two MALC suits, and most recently the Senator Powell lawsuit over SD10. All but one of the MALC lawsuits, which is specifically about State House districts in Cameron County and alleges a violation of the county rule, are in federal court. I believe this is the first one to include a focus on Asian-American voters, but I’d have to go back and take a closer look at the other complaints. Beyond that, I would be really excited to have an attorney who has some familiarity with the law in this area take a look at all these actions and tell me how they are different and whether any of it matters as far as the courts are concerned. Until then, this is what we know. Reform Austin, which also rounds up all the lawsuits, has more.

No bail in

No surprise, I’m afraid.

Texas won’t have to seek federal approval when state lawmakers draw new election maps in two years, a three-judge panel in San Antonio decided Wednesday. The judges, however, cautioned Texas that its next process will “undoubtedly” be subject to judicial scrutiny.

“Texas would be well advised to conduct its redistricting process openly,” U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez wrote in the 27-page opinion.

The decision is a blow to civil rights groups that had asked for Texas to again face federal oversight, known as preclearance, following a years-long legal battle over Texas political maps drawn after the 2010 census, which federal courts have found intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

The plaintiffs have yet to decide what they will do next, said Jose Garza, lead counsel for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. Garza noted the decision’s “strong language.”

“If you read the opinion in its entirety, the state doesn’t come up smelling very well,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. This doesn’t foreclose future litigation against the sure-to-be rigged maps the 2021 Lege will come up with – and if not them thanks to Democratic control of the House, the Legislative Redistricting Board – but it’s one less tool in the bag. The simple fact remains that Dems are going to have to win some elections while fighting uphill, and then once they have sufficient control of state government taking whatever steps are necessary to fix this. And if some time during the next decade we wake up in a world where Dems do have control of both chambers and the Governor’s office, redrawing all the maps a la 2003 would be a high priority in the subsequent session. Rick Hasen, the DMN, the Trib, and ThinkProgress have more.

The Section 3 bail-in hearing

At long last, the final question to answer about Texas and the Voting Rights Act, namely has the state done enough bad stuff to be required to be put under preclearance again?

Back in the federal courthouse where most of an eight year-long case has played out, the fight over forcing Texas back under federal oversight of its mapmaking appeared to hinge on whether the state should be held accountable for political maps that never took effect.

The arguments for a return to the days when Texas needed approval of its political districts diverged significantly during a Thursday court hearing before a panel of three federal judges. The state and the plaintiffs — voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers — each appeared to have a judge on their side. One judge was skeptical of any sort of supervision for state lawmakers, while another judge openly considered why Texas should be allowed to redraw its maps without any sort of guardianship given its recent discrimination against voters of color.

But the high-stakes fight — and ultimately the ruling from the three-judge panel overseeing the case — may very well rest on Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who made few remarks during the hearing but summed up the issue in one question.

“Is it actual injury or threatened harm that controls the issue?” Garcia asked.

[…]

“If the bail in statute means anything…it has to apply to Texas redistricting,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing some of the plaintiffs. “Texas redistricting is where the state again and again and again at every level of government has shown a resistance to recognizing the political power of minority voters.”

Thursday’s hearing marked the beginning of the final — and perhaps the most significant — stage of the long-running legal fight over the state’s political maps. The case is poised to serve as the latest test of whether the federal Voting Rights Act can still serve as a safeguard for voters of color. If the panel does not invoke bail in, the 2021 redistricting cycle would mark the first time in nearly half a century that Texas could implement new legislative and congressional districts without first proving they don’t undercut the electoral power of voters of color.

While under federal supervision, Texas proved to be a repeat offender. In their briefs to the court ahead of the hearing, the plaintiffs noted that state lawmakers passed one or more redistricting plans that were declared unconstitutional or in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every decade since 1970.

Given the rulings of intentional discrimination against the state, the plaintiffs are asking the court to put the state back under oversight of its mapmaking for up to 10 years to cover the next round of redistricting when the state will again rejigger its political boundaries to account for population growth.

But Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals appeared hostile to that proposal, repeatedly alluding to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in which the court signed off on most of Texas’ current political boundaries and pushed aside claims that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they replaced the 2011 maps in 2013.

“This has already been going on for eight years, and you want 10 more despite the Supreme Court saying it’s over,” Smith said. “I don’t understand.”

The state’s deputy solicitor general, Matthew Frederick, echoed that sentiment. He argued that Texas shouldn’t be placed back under federal oversight based on findings against maps that were never used, especially after the Supreme Court found no intentional discrimination behind the state’s 2013 effort to replace those maps with those offered up by three-judge panel in 2012 as an interim fix to allow elections to move forward that year.

Bail in “cannot be justified when a state adopts and accepts judicial remedies,” Frederick said.

“So your argument is we messed up and intentionally discriminated at first, but the court fixed it and as a result of the court fixing it we’re OK?” asked federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

Frederick responded that those violations weren’t enough to invoke bail in because the state had not engaged in widespread, rampant discrimination. He pointed out that any sort of discrimination found by the court in Texas did not amount to the widespread racism that marked the 1960s, when states kept voters of color from casting votes by continuously replacing barriers —for example , requirements that black voters guess how many bubbles are in a bar of soap — with other impediments, such as literacy tests, as they were deemed unconstitutional.

But Rodriguez continued to question Frederick over whether the state was “engaging in more subtle forms of discrimination” that it then attempted to wash away by replacing discriminatory laws with court fixes and then claiming there was no harm for which it could be held accountable. He pointed to the state’s defense of its strict voter ID law that, like the state maps, was eventually replaced with a court remedy after a judge found it was enacted with discriminatory purpose.

“But for this court’s changes to those 2011 plans, the state would’ve continued to try to continue to implement them,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what the whole [bail in] paradigm is trying to prevent from happening again.”

See here and here for the background. These are the same three judges who had ruled in the earlier redistricting cases, so it is entirely possible that they may once again vote 2-1 in favor of the plaintiffs. I mean, the record speaks quite clearly for itself, and if Texas doesn’t meet the standard for bail-in, it’s hard to know how it could ever be met. Which just means that the Fifth Circuit will need to come up with a reason, which SCOTUS will then endorse, because come on, we’ve seen this movie and we know how it ends. I wish I were less cynical, but how can you not be, given what has happened so far? We’ll see how long it takes for a ruling and we’ll go from there. The DMN and Michael Li have more.