In a case that could transform redistricting in Texas and beyond, three federal judges in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Galveston County’s argument that “minority-coalition” districts are not protected under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
A three-judge panel heard oral arguments in the case last week.
The primary issue is whether the county must create a majority-minority district by grouping together a “coalition” of black and Hispanic voters. Neither blacks nor Hispanics are a large enough percentage of the county’s population to create their own majority-minority district.
The panel’s opinion issued Friday affirmed a lower court judgment against Galveston County’s redistricting plan but said that the appellate court’s past decisions supporting coalition claims “are wrong as a matter of law” and “should be overturned.”
“The text of Section 2 does not support the conclusion that distinct minority groups may be aggregated for purposes of vote-dilution claims,” wrote Circuit Judges Edith Jones, Jennifer Elrod, and Rhesa Barksdale.
The district court appropriately applied precedent when it permitted the black and Hispanic populations of Galveston County to be aggregated for purposes of assessing compliance with Section 2. But the members of this panel agree that this court’s precedent permitting aggregation should be overturned.
The judges called for the case to be reheard en banc—by the full Fifth Circuit. Only the full appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court can change the court’s precedent.
“We are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will decide to rehear the appeal en banc and find that coalition claims are not covered by the Voting Rights Act,” said Joe Nixon, litigation counsel for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, who is one of the attorneys representing the county.
The case involves a challenge to how Galveston County redrew its four commissioners court districts in 2021.
Galveston County’s new district maps eliminated the lone majority-minority commissioner precinct, which was a coalition district.
In 2022, plaintiffs in three now-consolidated lawsuits challenged the plan, accusing the county of racial gerrymandering and intentional racial discrimination.
Following a ten-day trial in August, a federal district court judge in Galveston ordered the county to adopt a new redistricting map that includes a coalition district “before November 11.”
That order is on hold.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sets precedent for the three states within its appellate jurisdiction: Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Other federal circuits do not allow using minority group coalitions to create what are almost always Democrat districts.
Eliminating coalition districts would transform how electoral maps are drawn. Democrats in Texas and other states stand to lose seats across all levels of government, from school boards to the state legislature.
If the full Fifth Circuit fails to reverse its position on coalition districts, the U.S. Supreme Court can resolve the “circuit split” on the redistricting issue.
The three-judge panel requested a decision from the full circuit court on whether this case should be reheard en banc “at the earliest possible date.”
Meanwhile, the lower court’s order remains administratively stayed, leaving Galveston County’s current commissioners court districts in place for the 2024 election cycle.
County commissioner Precincts 1 and 3 are on the November 2024 ballot. The filing period for candidates to run in the March 2024 primary for those seats began November 11.
The case is styled Petteway v. Galveston County. Audio of the oral arguments can be heard here.
The full opinion can be read below.