Lawsuit Claims At-Large High Court Elections Discriminate Against Latino Voters

A federal judge in Corpus Christi will hear a lawsuit challenging the at-large method of electing members of the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

By Jill Ament and Rhonda FanningFebruary 12, 2018 7:14 am, ,

The audio version of this story incorrectly states that Latinos make up 25 percent of the state’s population. In fact, they account for 25 percent of the voting-age population of Texas and 40 percent of the state’s overall population.

Candidates for the Texas Supreme Court and the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals will be on the upcoming primary ballot, but some aren’t happy with how the positions are filled. On Monday, a federal judge in Corpus Christi is hearing arguments from a group of Latino voters and a civil rights group that say the current system dilutes the voting power of Texas Latinos.

Just like other statewide offices, Texas Supreme Court justices and judges on the Court of Appeals are elected at-large, by all Texans, beginning with Republican and Democratic primaries for each race. Plaintiffs in the current suit want these judges elected by geographic district instead.

Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, professor of law at South Texas College of Law in Houston, specializes in state constitutions and civil procedure. He says there’s no standard way to choose members of a state’s highest courts. In 22 states, courts are elected. In the others, judges are typically appointed. In some states, appointed judges are subject to retention elections.

“There are about as many different ways to elect judges as there are states,” Rhodes says.

The lack of district elections, say plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, “submerges” Latino voting power. They point out that all members of both courts are Republican, and each court has one member who is Hispanic.

“The argument is that Latinos, being 25 percent of the [voting-age] population, should be able to elect more candidates of their choice, and that therefore, this is a violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Rhodes says.

The State of Texas says the Voting Rights Act has never been used to convert a statewide, at-large voting system into a district-based system. The state also argues that citizens don’t necessarily vote along racial lines in judicial elections.

“The candidates that are losing in the primaries…are losing in the primary because of their party affiliation, not because of their race,” Rhodes says. “And the Voting Rights Act doesn’t protect Democrats versus Republicans.”


Written by Shelly Brisbin.