In a voting rights case that could transform how electoral boundaries are drawn across Texas and beyond, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments as to why Galveston County’s challenged redistricting plan should stand.
At issue is whether the county must create a majority-minority district by grouping together a “coalition” of black and Hispanic voters.
On Tuesday, a three-judge appellate panel in New Orleans heard oral arguments in the case.
Galveston County is seeking to reverse a lower court’s order requiring the county to adopt a new redistricting map that includes a coalition district “before November 11.”
The district court’s order followed a two-week trial in August challenging how Galveston County redrew its four commissioners court districts in 2021.
The redistricting plan eliminated the county’s lone majority-minority commissioner precinct, which was a coalition district.
A group of plaintiffs in three consolidated lawsuits accused the county of racial gerrymandering and intentional racial discrimination.
“In Galveston County, the black or Hispanic population is insufficient on its own to create a majority-minority district,” Angela Olalde, the attorney arguing for the county during Tuesday’s hearing, told the panel.
Galveston County’s case is challenging old rulings from the Fifth Circuit (which hears cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) that have allowed coalition districts.
Other federal circuits do not allow using minority group coalitions to create what are almost always Democrat districts.
The county argued that the Voting Rights Act does not protect minority coalitions—which represent political, not racial, alliances.
They also argued that Galveston County’s black and Hispanic voters do not meet the legal pre-conditions of geographic compactness and political cohesion for creating a majority-minority district.
Olalde said the lower court “discounted” evidence of lack of cohesion and partisan political polarization among the county’s black and Hispanic voters during primary elections.
Judge Edith Jones, a Reagan appointee who has previously opined against coalition districts, asked the majority of questions during Tuesday’s hearing and appeared receptive to most of the county’s arguments.
On the issue of coalition districts, Jones told Olalde that the panel was “not going to overrule” the circuit’s past cases upholding coalitions. Three-judge panels may not overturn the court’s precedent—that would require a decision by the full Fifth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.
By contrast, Jones seemed skeptical of arguments made by the plaintiffs.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Jones said when Hilary Klein, the attorney arguing on behalf of the NAACP and LULAC, suggested the plaintiffs could argue intentional discrimination if the case is remanded to the lower court.
Jones shot down that idea, stating more than once that District Judge Jeffrey Brown “never found intentional discrimination” and “did not reserve” intent claims.
At this time, the district court’s ruling is administratively stayed. Brown denied Galveston County’s motion for a stay pending appeal but granted additional time for the county to comply with his order.
If Galveston County prevails in its challenge to coalition districts, Texas Democrats stand to lose seats across the state, from school boards to the legislature. Attorneys for the county have said they are willing to pursue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For Galveston County voters, a favorable ruling means the current county commissioner districts will stay in place.
County commissioner Precincts 1 and 3 are on the November 2024 ballot. The filing period for candidates to run for those seats in the March 2024 primary is November 11 to December 11.