Challenge to Texas Judicial Elections Shot Down

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – Republican dominance in Texas elections explains why only two of 18 judges on the state’s highest courts are Latino, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, dismissing a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by Hispanic voters.

Texas Supreme Court justices listen as an attorney argues his case. (Eric Gay /Associated Press)

The GOP’s grip on the Lone Star State is clear: No Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994, and the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But Texas’ demographics – by 2020 there will be more Latinos than white people in the state – do not correspond with the racial makeup of its appellate courts of last resort, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

All the justices are white, except two Latinas, Eva Guzman on the Texas Supreme Court and Elsa Alcala on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

But like all the judges on those courts, Guzman and Alcala are Republicans, a fact U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos focused on in dismissing the lawsuit.

Joined by seven Latino Texans, La Union Del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, sued Texas, Governor Greg Abbott and then-Secretary of State Carlos Cascos in 2016, alleging the state’s at-large system for electing judges for the top appellate courts dilutes the Latino vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

LUPE is a nonprofit founded by labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez that advocates for farm workers and has offices throughout South Texas.

LUPE offered a solution to the lack of Latino high-court jurists in an amended complaint: carving out at least two single-member districts in the Hispanic-heavy regions of South and West Texas.

Single-member districts are set by geographical boundaries, so only voters living within them can vote for the candidates. At-large districts do not have those boundaries, so any Texas voter can vote for any candidate.

LUPE claimed that because there are more white Texans of voting age than their Hispanic counterparts, and whites tend to vote as a bloc, Hispanics’ chosen candidate is rarely elected to the courts.

Texas said the election results were not the product of Latino voter dilution, but partisan defeats.

Latinos are typically registered Democrats and Latino candidates for the Texas high courts usually run as Democrats.

To Texas, there is a simple explanation why Latino Democrat candidates for the high courts lose: More Republicans vote in Texas statewide elections than Democrats.

Texas said it makes sense to elect judges to these courts with statewide, at-large elections. Since the judges’ decisions apply to all Texans, statewide elections make them accountable to all Texans, not just narrow constituencies, the state argued.

In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Ramos held up Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman as evidence that partisanship carries the day in Texas.

Guzman, a Latina Republican, got more votes in 2016 than any candidate for statewide judicial office in Texas history. But she did not win the Latino vote – most Latinos voted for her Democratic opponent.

“Plaintiffs have not satisfied their burden to show that the voting methodology results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color,” Ramos, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in her 43-page order.

“Instead, the court finds that partisanship rather than race better explains Hispanic defeat at the polls,” she added.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised Ramos for siding with Texas and pointed to the current system’s longevity as proof it is fair.

“Texans have been choosing the courts’ highest appellate judges in statewide elections for 142 years, and this system supports the state’s interest in maintaining judicial accountability and independence. The system was enshrined in the Texas Constitution in 1867 and allows every Texas voter to vote for every candidate seeking a seat on the state’s two highest courts,” he said in a statement.

Ezra Rosenberg, LUPE’s attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., found a silver lining in the order.

“While we are disappointed the court ultimately found that party politics played a greater role than race in these elections, the court’s opinion recognizes that Latinos had suffered from discrimination in ways that have hampered their ability to be elected to these courts. We hope that this case has shed light on this unfortunate history of discrimination,” he said in a statement.

Rosenberg said he needs to thoroughly review the ruling and consult with his clients to decide whether to appeal.

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