CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – Hispanics in Texas will soon outnumber whites, but only two of the 18 judges on the state’s highest courts are Latino, and a federal judge refused this week to dismiss a voting-rights lawsuit taking aim at that disparity.
By 2020 there will be more Hispanics than white people in Texas and by 2042, Hispanics will be the state’s majority racial group, according to the Office of the State Demographer.
La Union Del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a nonprofit founded by Cesar Chavez that advocates for farm workers and has offices throughout the Rio Grande Valley, claims the state election system for the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Criminal Court of Criminal Appeals is rigged against Latinos.
Joined by seven Latino Texans, LUPE sued Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Secretary of State Carlos Cascos in July 2016, alleging the state’s at-large system for electing judges for these courts dilutes the Latino vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
LUPE’s first amended lawsuit urges a federal judge to stop Texas from running any elections for the two courts under the current system and to order Texas to implement a new process. LUPE suggests a solution in the 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 don’t have those boundaries, so candidates are elected by statewide votes.
LUPE claims 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.
The group’s lawsuit, amended in September, cites some startling figures to back its claims.
“Since 1945, only five of the 76 justices to serve on the Supreme Court, a mere 6.6 percent, were Latino. During the same period, 69 of those 76 justices, or 89.5 percent, were white,” the complaint states. “Since 1945, only two of the 48 judges to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, or 4.2 percent, were Latino. During the same period, 44 of those 48 judges, or 91.7 percent, were white.”
When a vacancy comes up on either court, the governor appoints a replacement, who serves until the next general election and can then run for the seat.
“No Latino candidate has ever won election to either court without first being appointed by the governor,” the amended complaint states.
Each of the appellate courts has just one Hispanic judge, both women. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Justice Eva Guzman to the Supreme Court in June 2009 and voters elected her for a full term in November 2010.
Perry appointed Elsa Alcala to the Court of Criminal Appeals in May 2011 and she was elected to a full term by default in 2012, running unopposed in both the Republican primary and general election.
Texas argued in a dismissal motion that LUPE and its co-plaintiffs lack standing, unless they could point to an example in which their own preferred candidates weren’t elected. The state also claimed that the plaintiffs couldn’t prove there were no other factors, like party affiliation, that led to their chosen candidates’ defeat.
But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos sided with LUPE on Monday and refused to dismiss the case.
“At-large voting schemes have been held to impair minority voting rights. Thus, individual citizens of the affected minority in the relevant jurisdictions have the necessary injury to satisfy the requirements of standing to challenge a practice allegedly causing dilution of their vote,” she wrote.
The judge added, “The first amended complaint recites a statistical history of voting for the high courts of Texas and alleges that Latino candidates and other candidates preferred by the Latino community have not been elected in numbers proportionate to the voting class. They have placed the immediate past history of election outcomes in question and further development of the issues requires discovery and the presentation of evidence.”
Gonzales Ramos is very familiar with Voting Rights Act cases. She struck down Texas’ voter ID law in 2014, finding it was purposely crafted by the Republican-controlled Legislature to dilute the minority vote and had a discriminatory impact on black and Hispanic voters.
The Fifth Circuit agreed with Gonzales Ramos on the discriminatory impact and remanded the discriminatory-intent question to her for a final determination last July.
Gonzales Ramos held hearings in the voter ID case earlier this year and it’s unknown if and when she will issue a ruling because the Texas Legislature says it is working on a bill to revise its voter ID law that will moot the case if it becomes law.
Gov. Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the order.