Supreme Court declines to intervene in Voting Rights Act challenge to Texas county map over

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CNN
 — 

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to intervene in a dispute over a Republican-drawn commissioners map in Galveston County, Texas, as courts continue to consider the reach of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Tuesday’s order means that the County Commissioners Court map that a federal judge ruled violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act will remain in effect while a federal appeals court reviews the judge’s decision next year.

The dispute has gained the attention of voting rights experts across the county at a time when county-level officials are trying to redraw electoral maps and work to cement power after the 2020 census.

Critics say what Republican officials are attempting in Galveston – which they say amounts to a stark racial gerrymander that dismantled the only Black- and Latino-dominant precinct in the county – could be replicated across the country in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The court’s three liberal justices publicly dissented from the court’s decision Tuesday.

“In imposing a different map, acknowledged to violate current law – on the theory that the Circuit might someday change that law – the Court of Appeals went far beyond its proper authority,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a brief dissent that was joined by her two liberal colleagues.

“Even though this case is only about a local district map in Galveston, it has much broader implications,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

“The (5th US Circuit) court of appeals justified letting the unlawful map stay in place in a way that will make it much harder, going forward, for plaintiffs in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Texas to persuade any federal judge to block an unlawful map except in very short windows after elections take place,” Vladeck said.

The dispute arose in November 2021 when the Galveston County commissioners – who are a majority Republican – voted to adopt a redistricting plan that governs the four county commissions. The plan dismantled Precinct 3, which had been the only Black- and Latino-dominant precinct in the county for decades.

Voting rights groups say that before 2013, Texas would have had to pre-clear any changes in maps with the Department of Justice. But after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, such preclearance was no longer necessary.

“The decision gutting the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act opened the door to the current challenge,” Mark Gaber, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center representing the challengers, previously told CNN. Gaber said the county even admitted in court that the voting changes would never have been allowed before the 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder.

Challengers – including residents such as Terry Petteway of Galveston, whose home address was a part of Precinct 3 until it was redrawn – argued the county maps diminished the ability of Black and Latino voters to elect candidates of their choice for those offices.

A district court ruled in favor of the residents and blocked the map as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court ordered a remedial process so that a lawful map could be put in place ahead of the December 11 candidate filing deadline for the November 2024 election.

US District Court Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown held that the initial maps were “fundamentally inconsistent” with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. He said the maps were “stark and jarring” and that they transformed Precinct 3 from one with the highest percentage of Black and Latino residents to that with the “lowest percentage.”

“The circumstances and effect of the enacted plan were mean-spirited and egregious given that there was absolutely no reason to make major changes to Precinct 3,” the court held.

The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals put a pause on the district court’s ruling, and agreed to take up the dispute next May, when the full court will review the matter – well after the state’s March primary contest.



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