A Texas city violated the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment by purposefully trying to dilute Latino votes, a U.S. district judge ruled Friday.
Pasadena, Texas, will become the first jurisdiction to have to clear changes to its election laws with the Department of Justice since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which brought the Texas lawsuit.
The 2013 Supreme Court ruling freed states with a history of voter discrimination from having to get DOJ approval to change election laws. Following the decision, scores of states and localities rushed to pass voter ID and other measures that voting rights advocates say disenfranchise minorities.
The Texas lawsuit, filed on behalf of Latino voters in Pasadena, accused Mayor Johnny Isbell and members of the City Council of manipulating the districting system in order to keep Latinos from gaining seats on the City Council.
Latinos make up 62 percent of the population of Pasadena, a city of 150,000 outside Houston, but turnout lags behind white voters. Isbell, a Republican, faced challenges in recent years to his party’s hold on power as the city’s Hispanic population grew. With only a one-vote majority on the City Council, he led an effort four years ago to change the electoral system.
Instead of electing City Council members by districts, which gave areas with a Hispanic majority a better chance of electing Latino officials, Isbell pushed a hybrid system with six single-member districts and two-at large districts, which would be elected by the public as a whole.
Voters approved the redistricting changes in a tight referendum election in 2013. An estimated 99.6 percent of the city’s Latino voters opposed the changes, according to Friday’s ruling by U.S. Chief District Judge Lee Rosenthal.
The ruling also describes how after the referendum, Council Member Pat Van Houte, a Democrat, criticized the changes before the City Council. Isbell had police escort her out of the building for violating a new rule limiting floor speeches to three minutes on any given topic.
In addition to requiring DOJ clearance, Friday’s ruling forces Pasadena to abandon the redistricting plan and go back to its previous system — a map used in the 2013 election made up of eight single-member districts.
Rosenthal called that the “less intrusive remedy” that gives the Pasadena City Council a chance to course-correct in time for its May 2017 election.
But the pre-clearance requirement is indeed the heavier burden.
“Any new City Council voting map, plan, or procedure may be enforced before court review only if it has first been submitted to the United States Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within 60 days after submission,” Rosenthal ordered.
It’s not yet clear whether the city will appeal. The lead attorney representing the city of Pasadena, C. Robert Heath, told The Houston Chronicle they would need to study the ruling before making a decision.
“Certainly, I do think that the plan doesn’t result in dilution of the Hispanic vote,” Heath told the Chronicle. “As the evidence showed there were more Hispanics elected under the 6-2 plan than were ever elected under the 8-0 plan. ... But the judge obviously disagreed.”
The closely watched case may have implications for other parts of the country ― especially the South, where jurisdictions have changed electoral systems after the 2013 VRA case.
“The Court’s well-reasoned decision is a clear warning to other jurisdictions that might seek to limit Latino voting power by taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the protections of pre-clearance in the notorious Shelby County case,” Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. “The decision is also a repudiation of those, including congressional leaders, who facilely assert that intentional vote discrimination no longer occurs and that the protections of pre-clearance are no longer needed.”
Cristian Farias contributed reporting.