Full 5th Circuit court hears Galveston County’s defense of its 2021 redistricting plan

The lawsuit is one of the first significant tests of the Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld Section 2 of the Act, which bans racial gerrymandering.

By Andrew Schneider, Houston Public MediaMay 15, 2024 8:49 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday in a major case involving the application of the Voting Rights Act to local governments. The case, Petteway v. Galveston County, hinges on the question of whether coalitions of non-white voters are entitled to the same protections as Blacks and Latinos are separately.

In 2021, Republican commissioners in Galveston County redrew the county’s political boundaries to cut up the one voting district in which non-white, Democratic voters made up a majority. A group of non-white current and former county officials sued, saying this was racial gerrymandering and, as such, violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. They were later joined by several civil rights organizations and the Biden Administration.

A federal district court found in favor of the plaintiffs last year and ordered the county to adopt a new map that complied with the act. But the county appealed multiple times. The result was that the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the lower court’s ruling until the full bench of the 5th Circuit had heard the case.

Arguing for the county, attorney Joseph Nixon said neither Black nor Latino voters comprised a majority in any part of the county.

“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act does not protect coalitions,” Nixon said. “Consequently, this court should reverse the trial court and render judgment for the defendants.”

Chad Dunn, one of three attorneys speaking for the plaintiffs, argued the 5th Circuit itself had previously held coalition claims were allowed under the Act and that ruling for the county would overturn precedent.

“Is it too much to ask for one seat at the table?” Dunn asked the judges. “Justice in this case is allowing these people to retain the one voice they have, the dignity of being able to be heard in the hall of government.”

The lawsuit is one of the first significant tests of the Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in last year’s Allen v. Milligan, upholding Section 2 of the Act, which bans racial gerrymandering. Previously, in Shelby County v. Holder, the high court struck down Section 5 of the Act, which required Texas, among other states, to obtain federal preclearance before changing voting maps.

Valencia Richardson is legal counsel for voting rights with the Campaign Legal Center, which also represents another group of plaintiffs in a case that was subsumed into Petteway. She said it’s unlikely the 5th Circuit will issue its ruling in time to strike down the 2021 map before this fall’s general election. That means the current Precinct 3 commissioner for Galveston County – Stephen Holmes, who is African American and a Democrat – will almost certainly lose his seat to his white, Republican challenger, former Galveston County Treasurer Hank Dugie.

A victory for Galveston County in the case, Richardson said, “would mark the first instance that I know of where, post-Shelby County, a jurisdiction was allowed to eliminate protections formerly granted to minority voters through the Voting Rights Act.”

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