Federal judge rejects challenge to Texas court elections


Highlights

Latino voters, civil rights group argue that statewide elections improperly dilute Latino voting strength.

U.S. judge says evidence shows Latino support for Democrats, not racism, is to blame for electoral defeats.

A Corpus Christi federal judge has rejected a challenge seeking to end statewide elections for Texas’ highest criminal and civil courts, allowing an electoral tradition that is more than a century old to continue.

The lawsuit — filed by Latino voters and LUPE, an organization founded by the late civil rights activist Cesar Chavez — argued that holding statewide elections to select the members of the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals improperly dilutes Latino voting strength and denies Latinos the right to elect a candidate of their choice.

Ordering Texas to adopt single-member districts or a similar fix, the lawsuit argued, would correct the Voting Rights Act violation by creating at least two Latino-majority voting districts — based in the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas — for the nine-member courts.

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U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos disagreed, even though she found that there is a racial divide among Texas voters and that white voters tend to vote as a bloc, typically defeating “the minority’s preferred candidate” for the state’s highest courts.

The problem, Ramos said, is that the challengers failed to prove that those electoral defeats were caused by race or racism.

A better predictor of electoral success, the judge noted, is party affiliation, and Latino voters tend to support Democrats in a state that has elected only Republicans to statewide political offices since 1996.

“Partisanship rather than race better explains Hispanic defeat at the polls,” wrote Ramos, a nominee of President Barack Obama who presided over a four-day trial on the matter in February in her Corpus Christi courtroom.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the ruling, saying it acknowledged a system that was “enshrined” in the Texas Constitution of 1867.

“Texans have been choosing the courts’ highest appellate judges in statewide elections for 142 years, and this system supports the state’s interest in maintaining judicial accountability and independence,” Paxton said.

Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer for the voters and LUPE, said a decision on whether to appeal will be made after the ruling is carefully reviewed and lawyers can consult with one another and their clients.

“While we are disappointed in the result, it is important to note that the court did recognize that white voters in Texas have historically voted as a bloc so as to prevent Latinos from electing candidates of their choice to Texas’s highest courts,” said Rosenberg, who is with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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“Although the court ultimately found that politics played a greater role than race in these elections, the court’s opinion recognizes that Latinos had suffered from discrimination in ways that have hampered their ability to be elected to these courts,” he said. “We hope that this case has shed light on this unfortunate history of discrimination.”

In her ruling, Ramos wrote that creating single-member districts might solve some of the vote-dilution problems raised by the plaintiffs but added that such a solution had several drawbacks as well:

• District elections would inject the Legislature into the process of drawing judicial districts, which could infringe on a governing model built on the separation of powers.

• Voters would lose the opportunity to have a voice in the selection of every member of the two courts, which is significant because cases are decided by a majority vote of at least five judges.

• There would be no guarantee that the majority of judges would not run “roughshod over any given minority judges.”

“Single-member districts could have the unintended effect of increasing the power of a majority of judges elected from districts with wider polarization levels in favor of white voters,” Ramos wrote.



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