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Carmen Rodriguez

Lawsuit over how judges are elected statewide goes to trial

Hey, remember that lawsuit that argued that statewide elections of judges was discriminatory against Latinos? The case is being heard in court this week.

El Paso lawyer Carmen Rodriguez and Juanita Valdez-Cox, a community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley, live hundreds of miles from each other, but they share an electoral grievance that could upend the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

For years, Rodriguez and Valdez-Cox have noticed that campaigning for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals hardly reaches their corners of the state. And it’s left them feeling so neglected and undermined as voters that they decided to the sue Texas over the statewide election system it uses to fill seats on those courts.

“I think every vote should count and should have equal weight as much as possible,” Rodriguez testified in federal court on Monday on the first day of a week-long trial in a case challenging the state’s current election method for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. But those campaigning for those seats hardly make their case to El Paso voters, Rodriguez added, so “they don’t seem to need our vote.”

That sentiment is a key component to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Rodriguez, six other Hispanic voters and Valdez-Cox’s organization, La Union del Pueblo Entero, that alleges the statewide method of electing judges violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the voting power of Texas Hispanics and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates.U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has set aside the rest of the week for the trial during which the plaintiffs’ lawyers will work to convince Ramos that Texas should adopt a single-member approach — similar to those employed by some city councils and school boards — that would carve up districts geographically in a way that could allow for Latino-majority voting districts.

“The courts cannot be the great equalizer of our social fabric when one group — Latinos — are disadvantaged in the election process,” Jose Garza, an attorney representing the voters, said in his opening statement Monday.

Throughout the day, Garza and other attorneys representing the voters suing the state called up individual plaintiffs and election law and history experts to help make their case that the state’s current system for electing Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges “submerges Latino voters” in a manner that violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits an electoral practice or procedure that discriminates against voters.

Lawyers for the Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in court, will offer up their own experts later in the week in hopes of dispelling those claims. The state’s lead attorney, Patrick Sweeten, on Monday provided a preview of their arguments when he described their defense and the plaintiffs’ arguments as “two ships passing in the night” because the state’s evidence will show that the plaintiffs cannot meet their legal burden of proving a Section 2 violation.

The state is also expected to call up an expert witness who will argue that single-member districts would “disempower more Hispanic voters than they could potentially empower” because they would only be able to vote for one seat on each high court instead of casting a ballot for all 18 seats.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers spent a large portion of the day arguing that that point would only hold up if you assumed Latinos had the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates to begin with.

See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss a few months ago. This story was from Tuesday, but I haven’t seen anything more recent so I can’t say how the trial is going. Seems like a heavy lift to me, and there’s an argument to be made that districting the courts would put a ceiling on the number of Latinos that could be elected. You have to figure that sooner or later things will be different for statewide races. That said, I very much understand not wanting to wait, though of course taking a court case to completion will take some number of years. We’re at the start of that process, and we’ll see how it goes. Courthouse News and KUT have more.

Voting rights lawsuit filed over Texas statewide judicial elections

This happened on the same day as the Fifth Circuit ruling on voter ID.

[Wednesday], the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), Garza Golando Moran, PLLC, and Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of individual Latino voters alleging that the method of electing Texas’s Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges violates the Voting Rights Act. The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals are the two highest courts in the state and decide critical issues of state civil and criminal law, respectively.

“Courts in the state of Texas should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “Instead, the way in which Texas elects judges to two of the state’s highest courts denies Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice. Bringing Texas state courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act can help instill greater public confidence in the state’s justice system.”

All 18 high court judges in Texas, nine for each court, are elected statewide. Because White Texans comprise the majority of the citizen voting age population in the state, and because Latinos consistently prefer different candidates than do Whites, Latino-preferred candidates are almost never elected to the highest levels of the state’s judiciary. Such vote dilution is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act and the state could develop and implement a more representational electoral method.

Texas’s Latino citizen voting age population (CVAP) comprises 26.5 percent of the state’s CVAP while White Texans comprise 56.4 percent. With Latinos in the minority and voting polarized along racial lines, Latinos have been significantly underrepresented on both courts for decades. Since 1945, only two of the 48 judges to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, a mere 4.2 percent, were Latino. Over the same time period, only five of the 77 justices to serve on the Supreme Court, or 6.5 percent, were Latino.

Plaintiffs in the case include six individual voters from Nueces County and an individual voter from El Paso County.

“For too long the voice of the Latino community has been missing from the critical secret conference rooms of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Carmen Rodriguez, plaintiff in this case and longtime civil rights attorney and activist from El Paso. “It is vital that we bring the promise of the Voting Rights Act to the selection process of the members of these august judicial bodies.”

Because Texas’s judges largely represent only one subset of Texas voters, there are serious questions as to whether all of the circumstances of a diverse population are fully considered. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears all death penalty cases in the state. From 1977 to 2010, of the 92 executions of Latinos nationwide, 78 were executed in Texas. Recent Supreme Court decisions of critical importance to racial minorities, including a May 2016 ruling limiting school funding for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, were issued without so much as a dissent.

“All Texas citizens should have the right to cast a meaningful, undiluted vote for their most important courts,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. “For decades, that right has been denied to Latinos in Texas. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was designed precisely to deal with this circumstance.”

“For too long, the Latino community in Texas has had no say in who represents them on the highest courts in the state,” said Jose Garza, a civil rights attorney and partner at Garza Golando Moran, PLLC. “The recent school finance ruling is a clarion call to every minority in Texas: Your voice will not be heard by these courts. Now is the time to listen to the millions of Texas minorities who want a seat at the table to help decide the matters important to our community. I am proud to represent these brave clients and work with some of the best legal minds in voting rights to fight for my state and my community.”

“Being able to participate fully in our electoral system is a fundamental right of all citizens,” said Neil Steiner, a partner at Dechert LLP, which is representing the plaintiffs pro bono. “We look forward to vindicating those rights for Texas’s Latino population.”

Here’s the complaint. The introduction gives you an overview of what this is about:

1. The Supreme Court of Texas (“Supreme Court”) and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“Court of Criminal Appeals”) are the courts of last resort in Texas. They are the final authorities on questions of Texas civil and criminal law, respectively. Together, the two courts render enormously consequential decisions that profoundly affect the lives of all Texans.

2. According to the 2010 Census, Latinos, a significant and rapidly growing racial group, constitute 37.6 percent of Texas’s total population and 26.5 percent of Texas’s citizen voting age population. However, Latinos have been prevented from participating fully in the election of Texas’s high court judges because of the way those judges are elected. That election method, in which all judges for both courts are elected in at-large statewide elections, unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of Latino citizens and prevents them from electing their candidates of choice.

3. The Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals each has nine members. Because voting is racially polarized, that is, white voters as a group and Latino voters as a group consistently
prefer different candidates, the at-large method of election functions to deprive more than one quarter of the State’s eligible voting age population from electing judges of their choice to any of the eighteen seats on the two courts.

4. The Latino population and citizen voting age population are sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in at least two fairly-drawn single-member districts; the State’s Latinos are politically cohesive; and the State’s white citizen voting age majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat Latino voters’ preferred candidates. Because of these circumstances, as well as the historical, socioeconomic, and electoral conditions of Texas, the at-large election method for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301 (“Section 2”). Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986).

5. For these reasons, plaintiffs respectfully pray for this Court to issue: (1) a declaratory judgment that the use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (2) an injunction against the further use of at-large elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals; (3) an order requiring future elections for the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals to be conducted under a method of election that complies with the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act; (4) an award of costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs, including expert witness fees; and (5) such additional relief as is appropriate.

I found this on Wednesday afternoon via Rick Hasen while looking at his coverage of the voter ID ruling. Basically, this is the at-large versus single-member-district debate taken statewide. If you scroll down to the end of the complaint and look at the list of lawyers involved, you will see that one of them is Jose Garza, who has successfully argued voter ID and redistricting cases on behalf of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. (Both of Garza’s partners, including Martin Golando, are also involved.) Amy Rudd, the first attorney listed in the complaint, was pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and MALC in the voter ID case as well. Point being, this is an experienced legal team taking this on, and it could wind up being a pretty big deal, yet so far the only news coverage I have seen is from Texas Lawyer, KTSA, and the El Paso Times, which notes that six of the plaintiffs are from Nueces County, with the seventh being El Pasoan Carmen Rodriguez, a civil rights attorney and wife of Texas Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. I very much look forward to seeing how this plays out.