Court Holds Pasadena, Texas Discriminated in Move to At-Large Districts, Places City under Preclearance

In a major decision in a closely-watched case heard by the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, a federal district court has issued this 100+ page ruling in Patino v. Pasadena. The court found that Pasadena Texas’s move from districts to at large voting had the effect and was done with racially discriminatory intent against Latino voters. The court not only ordered the restoration of district elections; it put the city back under federal supervision for elections (supervision which was eliminated with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County).  For background on this case, see Jim Rutenberg’s excellent NYT magazine article, The New Attack on Hispanic Voting Rights.

From the opinion’s introduction:

For the reasons stated in detail below, the court finds and concludes that Pasadena’s 2014 change from an eight single-member district map and plan to a six single-member district and two at-large position map and plan for electing its City Council dilutes the votes of its Latino citizens, in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court also finds and concludes that the change to the mixed map and plan was intended to dilute those votes because they were cast by Latino voters, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pasadena is enjoined from using the 2014 mixed map and plan in the 2017 City Council elections or subsequent elections. Instead, Pasadena must conduct the 2017 City Council election using the eight single-member district map it used in the May 2013 City Council elections. Pasadena must also submit to federal Department of Justice preclearance before implementing future redistricting changes.

From the court’s findings on the discrimination being intentional:

Another deviation from the usual procedures accompanied the passage of Proposition 1. The Mayor’s tie-breaking vote instituted a new three-minute-debate rule, limiting the time to speak on a particular topic. This rule was new. It deviated from prior practice. It was introduced when the divisive nature of the proposed new map and plan to elect City Council members had become clear. This new rule was applied to the opponents of the 6–2 map and plan. Council member Van Houte’s violation of the rule led the Mayor to order her removed from the meeting. Three other Council members departed in protest, yet the remaining Council, guided by the Mayor, persisted to pass the 6–2 map and plan in their absence. And the Mayor deviated from ordinary procedures and violated City ordinances by bringing a firearm to one of the Council meetings at which the 6–2 map and plan was being debated.

This evidence provides a more compelling record than was present in Veasey to find that the proponents of the 6–2 map and plan not only knew it would have a dilutive, discriminatory impact on Latinos, but that the legislative body and its leader, the Mayor, intended that result. The fact that this legislative body is considerably smaller than the Texas legislature makes the intent analysis more straightforward as well. Cf. Veasey, 830 F.3d at 233….

Objective indicia of dilutive intent are present here as well. The objective indicia include the timing of the redistricting proposal so soon after Shelby County removed Department of Justice preclearance; the number and extent of procedural irregularities used in enacting the redistricting map and plan; the clear dilutive impact the map and plan would have; the clear knowledge that if a mixed redistricting map and plan was not put into place, the 2015 elections would produce a Latino preferred candidate majority of City Council members for the first in Pasadena’s history; and the use of such dilutive procedures as the place system and majority-vote requirement for the at-large Council positions. These provide strong objective indicia of a legislative intent to dilute Latino voting strength.

And from the section on reimposing preclearance:

Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 U.S.C. § 10302(c), authorizes a federal court, following a finding “that violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment justifying equitable relief have occurred within the territory of such State or political subdivision,” to order a jurisdiction to obtain the Justice Department’s preclearance of its election changes under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Because the court finds that Pasadena officials intentionally discriminated against Latinos in diluting their voting strength, the court grants the plaintiffs’ request under § 3(c) to require Pasadena to submit future changes to its electoral map and plan to the Department of Justice for preclearance. The court also grants the request for an order under § 3(c) to retain jurisdiction to review, before it is enforced, any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect” from the map and plan in use in the May 2013 election. Any new City Council voting map or procedure may be enforced if it has first been submitted to the United States Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within 60 days after submission.

Section 3(c) requires the court to define a period to retain jurisdiction. The parties have not made any suggestions about how long that should last. The court invites the parties to do so, no later than January 13, 2017. As a starting point, five years, or through the 2021 election, might be appropriate, because it is likely enough time for demographic trends to overcome concerns about dilution from redistricting.

(h/t Michael Hurta)

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