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Pasadena City Council approves settlement in redistricting case

It’s over.

The Pasadena City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a $1.1 million settlement agreement of a lawsuit challenging a city voting plan that a federal judge found diluted Latino voting influence.

Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler said that after four years of litigation and $3.5 million in legal fees he was glad to see the appeal come to an end.

“It all started out as a power grab that has now run its course,” Wheeler said. “In addition to the financial hit, the lawsuit gave the city a black eye in the national spotlight. It cost us progress and it cost us time.”

Councilman Phil Cayten said he would vote to end the lawsuit to save money even though he thought the city could have prevailed on appeal.

“I think the three more conservative judges of the appeal court would rule in favor of the City of Pasadena,” said Cayten, who apologized to constituents who favored continuing the appeal. “Let me just say that I believe in my heart that the City of Pasadena did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system.”

The settlement, recommended by new Mayor Jeff Wagner, calls for the city to pay for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and court costs, and to drop its appeal of U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s ruling regarding the 2013 council election system.

See here for the background. One of the consequences of this is that Pasadena is will be put under preclearance for six years, meaning that any changes they make to district lines or other election procedures will have to be approved before they can be implemented. The Trib explores this aspect of the settlement.

The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color. The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color.

As things stand now, the dispute won’t set broader precedent across Texas or beyond state lines. But in a state embroiled in court-determined voting rights violations on several fronts, the federal guardianship of Pasadena’s elections is meaningful, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 finding that conditions for voters of color had “dramatically improved.”

“I think it’s significant that in 2017 we have a trial court finding of intentional racial discrimination by a city in Texas and that the drastic remedy of preclearance has been successfully imposed,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school who specializes in election law. “The Pasadena ruling indicates that in some places racial discrimination in voting is very much a thing of the present.”

[…]

Rosenthal’s ruling was decisive for voting rights litigation playing out after that ruling, and the city’s move to drop its appeal and let the ruling stand sets up the possibility that Pasadena’s voting rights fight could play an outsized role in other court battles.

In 2013, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance — through the Voting Rights Act’s “bail-in” provision — if they committed new discriminatory actions. Rosenthal set a possible standard that other courts can look to in deciding whether to bail in other jurisdictions, legal experts observed.

“It’s one more black mark against Texas” that could help in other voting rights litigation, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

Pasadena’s vote to settle the case is likely to disappoint state leaders who had already filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal that warned of “unwarranted federal intrusion.” State attorneys had deemed Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling improper because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

See here for more on that. I don’t know what if any precedent Pasadena will set, but I’d rather have this outcome going forward than the alternative.

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