A federal judge in Houston dealt a major blow Friday to the city of Pasadena in a closely watched voting rights case, ruling that officials deliberately diluted the clout of Hispanic voters by revising the system for electing City Council members.
Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Pasadena to revert to its previous use of single-member districts for the upcoming May elections and ruled the city would need preclearance from the Department of Justice for any future changes.
“In Pasadena, Texas, Latino voters … do not have the same right to vote as their Anglo neighbors,” Rosenthal concluded in the 113-page decision released late Friday.
Patricia Gonzales, one of the plaintiffs who filed the federal lawsuit, said fairness can be restored to the city election system.
“All right,” she said, when informed of the ruling. “Now each section will be able to vote on who they want and their voices will be heard. I’m very pleased with the outcome.”
The ruling could provide a key test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 that gutted portions of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts said.
“It is a great win,” said Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “This case shows that there is something you can do, at least if you have the facts, lawyers and resources.”
Rosenthal cited witness testimony in her opinion, noting that both Texas and Pasadena had histories of exclusionary practices and that discriminatory attitudes toward Latinos still endured among Pasadena residents.
In recent years, the political balance in Pasadena had begun to shift, the judge wrote. But just as Latino voters were poised to elect a majority of single-district representatives to the City Council, longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell and his backers proposed changes to the election system, the judge said.
“In short, Pasadena’s elections are racially polarized,” Rosenthal wrote. “The City’s 2013 racially polarized vote in favor of the 6–2 redistricting map and plan and the Council’s 2014 vote to approve the change were narrowly decided. The effect was to dilute Latino voting strength. That effect was foreseeable and foreseen.”
The city is likely to appeal the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the ruling could have a significant impact nonetheless on the May elections. All City Council seats and the mayor’s post are up for election; Isbell is facing term limits and cannot seek re-election.
See here for the last update. Rick Hasen has a copy of and some excerpts from the decision. This is a big deal, and as the city of Pasadena has now been put back under preclearance, it’s a possible preview of what could be in store for Texas when we get a final decision on voter ID. Of course, being under preclearance now means a lot less than it would have under President Hillary Clinton, but it’s still something. We’ll see if there is an appeal, and if so if the Fifth Circuit steps in to halt any reversions to the old system before the May election. For now, I say congratulations and well done to the plaintiffs. A statement from the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus is here.