In a big win for Galveston County that has statewide and national importance, a federal appeals court granted a request to keep the county’s current redistricting plan in place during an ongoing legal fight over how the county drew boundaries for its four commissioner precincts.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals also signaled that the county is likely to win on the merits of the redistricting case when the full court rehears the county’s appeal next year, which will transform how electoral districts are drawn across Texas and beyond.

Thursday’s ruling came just days before the December 11 filing deadline for candidates running in the March 2024 primary. Commissioner seats in Precincts 1 and 3 are on the ballot in 2024.

Circuit Judge Andrew S. Oldham said that changing the precinct boundaries “on the eve of an election” could create voter confusion and reduce participation.

The order stays a trial court decision that blocked further use of the county’s commissioner precinct maps enacted in 2021 by the Republican-majority commissioners court and used in the 2022 elections.

The redistricting plan eliminated the county’s only majority-minority commissioner precinct: Precinct 3, a “minority coalition” district of blacks and Hispanics represented by the lone Democrat commissioner. Several plaintiffs challenged the plan, accusing the county of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering and vote dilution in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The county argued that coalition districts are not protected by the VRA and said the adopted maps reflect the growth in Galveston County’s population, which has been “overwhelmingly in the North, Anglo, and Republican” since the last round of redistricting in 2011.

A trial court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the county to adopt new maps that include a minority-coalition district.

“Absent a stay, Galveston County’s voters would be forced to vote under the new Judicial Map even before we could determine whether [Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act] or the Fourteenth Amendment allowed that result,” said Oldham. “So our choice is either to enter a stay now or allow Galveston County voters to use the (potentially unlawful) Judicial Map until after the November 2024 general election. We properly chose now.”

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who heads the commissioners court, told Texas Scorecard he is “encouraged” by the appellate court’s 11-6 vote in favor of the county.

“The Fifth Circuit correctly decided that changing election maps too close to an election would confuse voters, and a majority of the Fifth Circuit agreed that the county is likely to prevail on our argument that the Voting Rights Act does not support the plaintiffs’ ‘coalition district’ theory,” he said.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit heard arguments last month in the county’s appeal and said afterwards that the circuit court’s past decisions supporting minority coalition claims “are wrong as a matter of law” and “should be overturned.”

The panel called for the case to be reheard en banc, and a majority of the circuit judges agreed to a rehearing in May 2024.

A favorable ruling from the full court will overturn the circuit’s precedent that has allowed distinct minority groups to be aggregated into “coalition” districts for the purpose of vote-dilution claims under the VRA.

Reversing that precedent will transform redistricting in Texas and other states within the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction (Louisiana and Mississippi), impacting electoral boundaries from local school boards to the state legislature.

Other federal circuits do not allow using minority group coalitions to create what are almost always Democrat districts. The circuit split may eventually be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish a uniform redistricting standard nationwide.

On the merits of the case, Oldham said “it is not at all clear that coalition claims are permissible” under the VRA. He also said there is no “unambiguous” statutory language that “reasonably supports combining separately protected minorities,” which “suggests plaintiffs’ coalition claim must fail.”

“At the end of the day, plaintiffs would read [Section 2] to require race-based redistricting with no logical endpoint,” Oldham added. “The county has shown a likelihood of success in arguing that is unlawful.”

Henry said the county is looking forward to the en banc hearing at the Fifth Circuit. “This case is not just about Galveston County, but is of great national importance because the Voting Rights Act does not require us to draw Democrat districts.”

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.