Author Archives: Alexa Ura

Pasadena drops appeal, will remain under federal oversight of election laws

A strip mall on the north side of Pasadena, Texas, on July 1, 2017. The Houston suburb is under federal oversight for any changes to its voting laws until 2023 — the only setup of its kind in Texas.

In a crucial victory for Hispanic voters in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, the city will remain under federal oversight for any changes to its voting laws until 2023 — the only setup of its kind in Texas.

The Pasadena City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved Mayor Jeff Wagner’s proposal to settle a voting rights lawsuit over how it redrew its council districts in 2013, agreeing to pay out about $1 million in legal fees. Approval of that settlement will also dissolve the city’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that Pasadena ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act and intentionally discriminated against Hispanic voters in reconfiguring how council members are elected.

The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color.

As things stand now, the dispute won’t set broader precedent across Texas or beyond state lines. But in a state embroiled in court-determined voting rights violations on several fronts, the federal guardianship of Pasadena’s elections is meaningful, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 finding that conditions for voters of color had “dramatically improved.”

“I think it’s significant that in 2017 we have a trial court finding of intentional racial discrimination by a city in Texas and that the drastic remedy of preclearance has been successfully imposed,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school who specializes in election law. “The Pasadena ruling indicates that in some places racial discrimination in voting is very much a thing of the present.”

The local skirmish over Pasadena Hispanics’ right to choose their city council members in many ways began at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a landmark case known as Shelby County v. Holder, the high court in 2013 gutted the portion of the Voting Rights Act that prevented dozens of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against voters of color — including Texas and its municipalities — from changing their election laws without federal approval. Freed from needing to obtain federal “preclearance,” Pasadena’s former mayor, Johnny Isbell, quickly moved to nix the city’s eight single-member districts and instead proposed a “6-2 map” in which two council seats were chosen at-large.

After Pasadena voters approved the new map by a thin margin, civil rights attorneys representing Hispanic voters sued the city, arguing that the new council districts unlawfully diluted the voting strength of Hispanic residents.

Because turnout among Pasadena’s Hispanic residents has been historically lower than white residents, the civil rights attorneys argued that Pasadena Hispanics under the new map would probably be outvoted by whites when it came to electing the new at-large council members because voting blocs are often aligned along racial lines.

The voters who sued the city also alleged that the map change was made just as Hispanic voters — and the increasing political clout that came with their growing population — were about to shift the balance of power on the council to give their preferred representatives control of city matters on which they long felt neglected.

Following a seven-day federal trial in Houston, Judge Lee H. Rosenthal agreed there was evidence that Pasadena changed its map “precisely because Pasadena Latinos were successfully mobilizing and recently electing more of their candidates of choice.”

In a scathing opinion issued this year, she ruled that the city had violated the Voting Rights Act and reinstated the city’s eight single-member districts. “In Pasadena, Texas, Latino voters under the current 6-2 map and plan do not have the same right to vote as their Anglo neighbors,” Rosenthal wrote.

She noted the state’s discriminatory past when it comes to suppressing voters of color — poll taxes, all-white primaries, eliminating interpreters at the polls — and outlined how it has endured through modern day-elections in a town where voters told a Hispanic candidate campaigning for a council seat that they “weren’t going to vote for a wetback.”

Perhaps more notably for those outside of Pasadena, Rosenthal also ordered the city back under federal supervision under a different section of the Voting Rights Act — the first ruling of its kind since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.

Rosenthal’s ruling was decisive for voting rights litigation playing out after that ruling, and the city’s move to drop its appeal and let the ruling stand sets up the possibility that Pasadena’s voting rights fight could play an outsized role in other court battles.

In 2013, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance — through the Voting Rights Act’s “bail-in” provision — if they committed new discriminatory actions. Rosenthal set a possible standard that other courts can look to in deciding whether to bail in other jurisdictions, legal experts observed.

“It’s one more black mark against Texas” that could help in other voting rights litigation, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

Pasadena’s vote to settle the case is likely to disappoint state leaders who had already filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal that warned of “unwarranted federal intrusion.” State attorneys had deemed Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling improper because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

But amid a changing administration in Pasadena — where two out of every three residents is Hispanic — local leaders instead looked to resolve the litigation so the city could move on from a voting rights fracas that painted the city as one willing to suppress Hispanic voters.

“While I strongly believe that the city did not violate the Voting Rights Act or adopt a discriminatory election system, I think it’s in the best interest of the city to get this suit behind us,” Wagner, the mayor, said in a Friday statement announcing the proposed settlement. “It has been extremely divisive and focused our attentions on issues of the past.”

The settlement was celebrated by Pasadena’s Hispanic leaders, who were nervous that the city’s appeal could lead a higher court to wipe out their victory that overturned the 6-2 map — and, more significantly, the city’s return to federal oversight.

Rosenthal’s ruling will still serve as a warning for other cities looking to disenfranchise voters of color, said Cody Ray Wheeler, one of Pasadena’s three Hispanic council members and a vocal opponent of the 6-2 map. Sure, the case could have set a wider precedent if higher courts ruled against the city’s actions, Wheeler said, but extending that fight “doesn’t help people’s streets get fixed.”

“It’s been a black eye on the city,” Wheeler said. “I think the important thing for Pasadena is that we get back to normal and work for our citizens.”

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Pasadena drops appeal, will remain under federal oversight of election laws

Texas bathroom bill appears to be all but dead in special session

Protesters rally in favor of transgender rights at the Texas Capitol, on July 21, 2017.

Despite it serving, in part, as the reason lawmakers are back in Austin for legislative overtime, the Texas Legislature could very well gavel out next week without passing a “bathroom bill.”

With just days left in the 30-day special legislative session, controversial proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans appear to have no clear path to the governor’s desk. As was the case during the regular legislative session that concluded in May, efforts to pass any sort of bathroom bill — a divisive issue pitting Republicans against business leaders, LGBT advocates, law enforcement and even fellow Republicans — have stalled in the Texas House.

And it’s unlikely that will change in the coming days.

“I’d say the chances are definitely getting smaller,” Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, who filed two bathroom bills during the special session, said earlier this week.

The push to keep transgender Texans out of bathrooms that match their gender identity — a move opponents said was discriminatory and could endanger transgender individuals — largely dominated the regular legislative session between protests, lobbying days, two overnight hearings, legislative bickering among Republican leaders over proposed bathroom bills and, eventually, a forced special session.

Restricting bathroom use in public facilities was deemed a legislative priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But House Speaker Joe Straus, with the increased backing of the business community, emerged as his most prominent foil on the issue.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who for months during the regular session was reticent to voice his support for a bathroom bill — eventually took the lieutenant governor’s side and added the issue to his 20-item agenda for a special session that Patrick forced him to call by holding hostage legislation needed to keep open the doors at a handful of state agencies.

But amid concerns for the safety of an already vulnerable population and statewide economic fallout, those efforts did little to sway the speaker.

When lawmakers returned to Austin in July, the Senate quickly passed its latest version of the bill to regulate bathroom use in public schools and local government buildings based on the gender listed on a birth certificate or Texas ID. It would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to ensure transgender Texans can use public bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Just like during the regular session, Straus has refused to refer that bill to a House committee — the first step in the legislative process.

With the passage of a bathroom bill seeming improbable, Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst — the author of the Senate legislation — on Friday suggested lawmakers could be left to address the issue in the future.

“Men do not belong in female locker rooms, showers and restrooms and no amount of monetary threats, corporate logos, New Yorker articles or Hollywood hypocrisy will ever change that,” Kolkhorst said in a prepared statement. “Many Texans are alarmed at the effort by some to erode all gender barriers in our schools and public spaces and at the end of the day, there will be future legislative sessions and elections to continue the conversation.”

Simmons’ proposals in the House, which are focused on prohibiting municipalities and school districts from enacting trans-inclusive bathroom policies, were referred to the House State Affairs Committee. But that committee’s chairman, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, has indicated it’s not likely the committee will hold a hearing to consider the legislation.

And with the clock running out on the special session – both chambers must adjourn by Wednesday the demise of those proposals is looking more and more certain.

“I mean realistically, if the chairman says he’s not going to give a hearing then I can’t force him to,” Simmons said.

It’s unclear whether bathroom bill proponents will orchestrate an 11th-hour attempt to attach the restrictions to another piece of legislation. Similar efforts were unsuccessful during the regular session.

Simmons — who earlier this week hadn’t completely given up on his bills — speculated whether they could be rewritten to add to one of the pending education bills. But he was unsure whether he could craft an amendment in such a way that it would survive a likely parliamentary challenge by opponents who could argue that Simmons’ amendment was not germane to the bill under debate.

Asked whether she was considering ways to amend the language to other legislation, Kolkhorst’s office did not address the issue.

Even the head of the House Freedom Caucus — a group of the chamber’s most conservative members who previously tried to attach bathroom restrictions to other pieces of legislation — appeared resigned to not getting a vote on a bathroom bill.

“The speaker is very clearly involved in blocking this issue,” state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said on Thursday. “He’s made many public comments on it and the buck stops with Joe Straus on this.”

Despite the governor’s insistence that the Legislature should go “20 for 20” on his special session agenda, it’s clear that won’t be the case come next week. But it remains unclear where a loss on the bathroom bill will fall on Abbott’s list of grievances.

Since the start of the special session, Abbott in interviews and fundraising emails has emphasized other priorities on his agenda over the bathroom bill. Last week, he told the Austin American-Statesman that it was “way premature” to assume Simmons’ proposals wouldn’t get a vote in the House.

His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas bathroom bill appears to be all but dead in special session

IBM ups the ante in fight against Texas bathroom bill

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick holds a press conference outside Senate chambers two hours after House Speaker Joe Straus told reporters the House declines to negotiate with the Senate on its proposed compromise on a “bathroom bill.”

As state lawmakers return to Austin for legislative overtime, tech giant IBM is stepping up its fight to defeat legislation it says would discriminate against children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts.

In an internal memo sent Monday to thousands of employees around the world, IBM’s human resources chief outlined the New York-based company’s opposition to what the letter described as discriminatory proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans. IBM sent the letter to employees the same day it dispatched nearly 20 top executives to the Lone Star State to lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol. A day earlier, it took out full-page ads in major Texas newspapers underlining its opposition to legislation that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a cadre of far-right lawmakers have deemed a top priority.

“Why Texas? And why now? On July 18th, the Texas legislature will start a thirty-day special session, where it is likely some will try to advance a discriminatory ‘bathroom bill’ similar to the one that passed in North Carolina last year,” wrote Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president for human resources. “It is our goal to convince Texas elected officials to abandon these efforts.”

State lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin on Tuesday as part of a special session forced by Patrick after legislation he deemed as must-pass — including various proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans — failed during the regular session that concluded in late May.

Despite a fervent push by social conservatives, religious groups and some Republicans, the controversial proposals fizzled out in the Texas House where House Speaker Joe Straus made clear he opposed the legislation.

But similar proposals that would nix trans-inclusive bathroom policies enacted in recent years by Texas cities and school boards have already been filed for consideration during the special session that will end in mid-August.

The fate of such policies could once again come down to Straus who has long rooted his opposition to them in economic concerns like those expressed by IBM. But more recently he has framed them as concerning because of the detrimental effect they could have on transgender children who he has acknowledged as especially vulnerable.

Last week, IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty spoke with Straus directly over the phone about the issue.

IBM’s renewed efforts are part of a months-long campaign by the business community against Texas’ so-called bathroom bill. At the tail-end of the regular legislative session, the company was among several prominent corporations, including Apple and Facebook, that penned a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott expressing staunch opposition to legislation they described as discriminatory and bad for business.

Abbott has said a statewide rule “protecting the privacy of women and children” is necessary to avoid “a patch-work quilt of conflicting local regulations.”

“At a minimum, we need a law that protects the privacy of our children in our public schools,” the Republican said in June.

Large corporations waged a similar defensive campaign in North Carolina when that state passed its own controversial bathroom bill. Lawmakers there retooled the law earlier this year after it sparked cancellations of business expansions and high-profile sporting events.

The memo IBM sent to employees on Monday echoed concerns businesses voiced in their letter to Abbott earlier this year, saying the company — which has more than 10,000 employees in Texas — is focused on defeating the bathroom proposals because they’re detrimental to inclusive business practices and fly in the face of “deep-rooted” values against discrimination targeting LGBT people.

“A bathroom bill like the one in Texas sends a message that it is okay to discriminate against someone just for being who they are,” Gherson, the company’s HR chief, wrote.

IBM executives are expected to join several other business leaders on the steps of the Capitol Monday morning to protest the bathroom proposals.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on IBM ups the ante in fight against Texas bathroom bill

Voting rights battle in Pasadena could have Texas-wide legal ramifications

An old apartment complex within view of the ship channel refineries on the north side of Pasadena, Texas, July 1, 2017. (Photo by Michael Stravato)

PASADENA — Cody Ray Wheeler has a cowboy’s name.

It’s a product, he says, of being born the son of a North Texas refinery worker. In some ways it’s emblematic of a changing Texas: Wheeler, who is Hispanic, represents a city council district with a majority-white voting constituency in this Houston suburb.

It’s also a name that has put him at the center of a voting rights battle over whether city leaders here pushed changes to the council map to undercut the electoral power of a booming Hispanic majority.

“A Hispanic wasn’t supposed to win that seat,” Wheeler said over barbecue on a recent steamy afternoon. He’s convinced his non-Hispanic last name made the difference in his narrow 33-vote margin of victory in 2013.

“I could not run as a Hispanic candidate,” he said. “I would’ve lost.”

His victory marked a milestone for a city with a racially acrimonious past. Though most Pasadenans are Hispanic, it was the first time two Hispanics served together on the eight-member council.

Wheeler’s election also brought longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell’s majority on the council down to one vote. Joined by two white city council members who represented majority-Hispanic districts on the north side of town, the two Hispanic members fell into a voting bloc that often pitted them against Isbell and the four council members who represented the southern, mostly white side of Pasadena.

After the 2013 elections, many Pasadenans believed the balance of power was about to shift, with hopes hinging on one of the districts represented by an Isbell ally that was predominantly made up of Hispanic voters. But that summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that had prevented dozens of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against voters of color — including Texas and its municipalities from changing their election laws without federal approval.

Texas had been subject to those federal controls for decades. About a month after the state was freed from that electoral guardianship, Isbell introduced a proposal to redraw the city council map — and replace two of the districts with at-large seats elected by the entire city.

A group of Hispanic voters challenged the new map in court, setting into motion a case that could have implications across Texas — and could even become a test of whether the federal Voting Rights Act can still serve as a safeguard for minority voters nationwide.

But that’s only if parties on both side of the case keep it alive in court.

Pasadena’s voting rights fight is largely a result of changing demographic winds and the political tide that comes with them.

Lined by refineries to its north, the city of nearly 154,000 residents is a sprawling stretch of suburbia southeast of Houston in Harris County. Decades ago, the city charter imposed segregation and banned Spanish-language instruction. In the 1980s, it was home to the Ku Klux Klan’s Texas headquarters.

But by the time the 2010 census rolled around, white residents were in the minority and almost two out of every three residents were Hispanic. Carnicerias, panaderias and quinceañera party stores followed; in one pocket of town, two dozen businesses catering mostly to Hispanics filled an entire shopping center.

An old strip mall that now caters mostly to Hispanics on the north side of Pasadena, Texas July 1 2017.
An old strip mall that now caters mostly to Hispanics on the north side of Pasadena. Michael Stravato

This population boom among Hispanics was largely confined to the older north end of town where many residents have long pointed to deteriorating streets and shoddy drainage systems as evidence that the city neglects their neighborhoods in favor of the newer neighborhoods south of Spencer Highway where wealthier, white residents predominantly reside. “Seventy percent of the (city’s) money is spent south of Spencer,” Wheeler says.

As older, white voters die off and young Hispanics reach voting age, Pasadena’s electorate has been changing even faster than Harris County as a whole, said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist who monitors elections in Harris County.

Hispanics’ growth was translating to political clout on the city council, and their representatives saw the 2015 city election as their best chance to achieve a majority on the council that could help push for improved conditions on the north side.

Then came the Supreme Court decision that wiped clean the list of states and localities needing federal “preclearance” to change election laws and Isbell’s “6-2 map” proposal. In addition to turning two council seats into at-large seats, it merged two council districts with Hispanic majorities into one.

Isbell, who did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment, told voters at the time that the proposal was meant to make the council more representative and responsive to the concerns of all residents. In late 2013, Isbell told SCOTUSblog he pushed for the change “because the Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do.”

Wheeler and the other Hispanic-backed council members fiercely opposed Isbell’s proposal, which required voter approval. Historically, turnout among Pasadena’s Hispanic residents has been lower than white residents, particularly in local elections. Because voting blocs are often aligned along racial lines, Pasadena Hispanics would likely be outvoted by whites when it came to electing the new at-large council members.

When the map proposal went before the council, Isbell cast the deciding vote to break a 4-4 tie, and the issue was placed on the November ballot. Pasadena voters approved the new map by a 79-vote margin out of 6,500 votes cast.

Then came the lawsuit. Civil rights attorneys representing Hispanic voters sued the city, claiming the new council districts unlawfully diluted the voting strength of Hispanics and intentionally discriminated against them.

After a seven-day trial in Houston, a federal judge earlier this year found that Pasadena had violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered the city back under federal supervision under a different section of the law — the first ruling of its kind since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.

“In Pasadena, Texas, Latino voters under the current 6-2 map and plan do not have the same right to vote as their Anglo neighbors,” Judge Lee H. Rosenthal wrote in a scathing opinion, which reinstated the city’s eight single-member districts.

Rosenthal invoked Texas’ dark, discriminatory legacy against voters of color — poll taxes, all-white primaries, eliminating interpreters at the polls — and outlined how it has endured through modern day-elections in a town where voters told a Hispanic candidate campaigning for a council seat that they “weren’t going to vote for a wetback.”

The judge also wrote there was credible evidence that Pasadena changed its map “precisely because Pasadena Latinos were successfully mobilizing and recently electing more of their candidates of choice.”

Residents put up flags for the Fourth of July in a neighborhood on the south side of Pasadena on July 1, 2017.
Residents display flags for the Fourth of July in a neighborhood on the south side of Pasadena. Michael Stravato

The city has since appealed the case to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, contending that the city had no intent to dilute Hispanic votes and that the 6-2 map had no discriminatory effect.

Bob Heath, the city’s lead lawyer in the case, contends that Rosenthal’s consideration of the number of majority-minority districts in Pasadena and whether that’s proportional to the city’s voting age Hispanic population runs contrary to two recent opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And that’s where the case comes back to Wheeler’s name.

Heath points out that four candidates preferred by Hispanic voters prevailed in the 2015 elections — the only contests held under the 6-2 map. Among them was Wheeler, who was re-elected in a district that’s not majority-minority but is still “effective for Hispanics,” Heath said.

“That’s 50 percent (of the council seats) and Hispanics made up about 50 percent of the citizen voting-age population, so that was proportional representation,” Heath added.

But Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund — the attorney representing the Hispanic plaintiffs against the city — has repeatedly pointed out in court that Wheeler was assisted in his 2015 victory by “special circumstances” — his incumbency and his last name. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic-majority districts was reduced to three under the 6-2 map.

The case could reverberate beyond Pasadena’s city limits. Legal experts contend that a decision by the 5th Circuit could guide other courts around the country that are considering similar voting rights cases.

The Pasadena ruling also has the potential to help build a case against the state, which faces its own voting rights challenges in court, said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has studied voting rights cases for decades.

In lifting federal electoral oversight for Texas and other jurisdictions in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that conditions for minority voters had “dramatically improved,” but the justices left open the possibility that political jurisdictions could be placed back under preclearance if they committed new discriminatory actions.

Earlier this year, Texas faced a barrage of federal court rulings that found the 2011 Legislature intentionally discriminated against voters of colors by passing a stringent voter ID law and re-drawing the state’s political maps. Those cases are still making their way through federal courts in Corpus Christi and San Antonio.

The Pasadena ruling — “particularly because it was so thoroughly stated and so strong and by a judge that has no history of favoring blacks or Latinos in redistricting cases” — could serve as “another brick in building this case that Texas has a recent history of discriminatory action,” Murray said.

In a sign that Texas leaders also see Pasadena as a potential problem for its own cases, state attorneys filed an amicus brief in support of the city’s appeal, arguing that preclearance “must be sparingly and cautiously applied” to avoid reimposing “unwarranted federal intrusion.”

Judge Rosenthal’s preclearance ruling in the Pasadena case was improper, the state contends, because it was imposed for a single incident of discrimination instead of pervasive and rampant discrimination.

If the results of the May election are any proof, the city’s voters seem unwilling to upend the status quo in Pasadena.

Even with court-ordered single-member districts back in place, Pasadena voters elected a city council that’s expected to generally break the same way it did before the redistricting fight.

The Hispanic-voter backed voting bloc lost their coveted fifth city council seat by just seven votes. With Isbell stepping down because of term limits, voters elected council member Jeff Wagner — considered an Isbell ally on the council — as the new mayor.

With the city’s new slate of leaders sworn in last week, the future of the city’s appeal of Rosenthal’s order remains unclear.

Wagner was the only mayoral candidate who would not vow to drop the city’s appeal, Wheeler pointed out over lunch.

Pasadena Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler getting lunch at a local BBQ joint near the refineries on the north sidelines in Pasadena, Texas June 28, 2017.
Pasadena Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler getting lunch at a local barbecue joint near the refineries on the north side of Pasadena on June 28, 2017. Michael Stravato

Wagner, who did not respond to a request for an interview, previously told the Tribune he would consult with council members about the appeal and make a decision based on whatever consensus emerged.

Dropping the appeal and letting the lower court ruling stand would prevent an appeals court ruling that could set a precedent for the state — and eliminate the chance that it could reach the Supreme Court and become a test of the strength of the Voting Rights Act.

Perales, the MALDEF lawyer, said the plaintiffs are focused on eliminating voting discrimination in Pasadena. “That’s what this case is about, and that’s what we care about,” she said.

Pasadena’s Hispanic leaders also know that higher courts could rule against them and wipe out their victory that overturned the 6-2 map and put the city back under federal preclearance. Wheeler also points out that the city has already spent more than $2 million defending the case.

He will have a few more years on the council before term limits require him to step aside, but he wonders what the power balance will look like when someone else represents his district.

Wheeler wants to make sure his time on city council helps ensure that the system won’t be rigged against Hispanic voters in the future — and pursuing the appeal puts that at risk.

“Why take the chance?” he says.

Disclosure: Rice University and the University of Houston have been a financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Voting rights battle in Pasadena could have Texas-wide legal ramifications

Trial over Texas political maps starts in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — Embarking on the latest chapter to the years-long battle over the state’s political maps, Texas and its legal foes on Monday faced off in federal court over minorities’ voting rights and the district boundaries the state should use in the 2018 elections.

Focusing first on the state’s House map, minority rights groups suing the state began the trial by slogging through 10 hours of dense expert testimony, election analyses and state lawmakers’ methods of redrawing political boundaries in an effort to convince a panel of three federal judges that the state’s existing map is illegal and must be redrawn.

It was the first day of what’s expected to be a week-long trial before a court that earlier this year found that Texas Republicans intentionally discriminated against Texans of color in previous mapmaking.

With Texas becoming less white each day, lawyers for minority rights groups opened their push for new maps by parsing the state’s demographic growth, which shows that the population of eligible white voters has significantly declined since 2010.

When asked by federal district Judge Orlando Garcia how this relates to the 2013 maps, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ lawyer, Jose Garza, indicated it was proof that Texans of color don’t have proportional representation under the maps currently in place.

“Even today … minorities are underrepresented when measured against population data and population figures,” Garza said.

MALC also presented an alternative map to demonstrate that the state House boundaries could have been drawn in a way that minimized the slicing of municipalities and created additional “opportunity districts” where minority voters are able to select their preferred candidates.

Creating that type of district was not a legislative priority when the House took on redistricting in 2013; lawmakers only made “cosmetic changes” that didn’t “improve the overall map for minority opportunity,” former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer testified before the court.

In 2011, state lawmakers drew legislative and congressional maps following the 2010 census, but they were immediately challenged in court on the basis that they diluted the voting strength of Hispanic and black voters. The court drew interim maps amid an election scramble, and the Legislature in 2013 moved to adopt them.

Martinez Fischer argued that efforts to improve those maps for minority representation were rebuffed by the Republican majority.

“It was almost all upon deaf ears,” Martinez Fischer said.

While they’re challenging the existing map as a whole, lawyers with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund specifically focused on House District 90 as a district that should be invalidated, making the case that the redrawing of the district unconstitutionally diluted the strength of Hispanic voters.

One long-time Fort Worth resident involved in local politics told the court that the new boundaries of HD 90 “made it harder for a Hispanic to win.”

Late in the day, a lawyer for the NAACP started making its case against the state House map, opening with testimony on coalition districts in Bell County — one of several claims they’ve raised against house districts across the state. The NAACP is expected to continue its arguments that the state only adopted the court’s interim maps to avoid additional scrutiny and never planned to fix the discrimination that’s “deeply steeped” in the maps.

The political stakes are high. A ruling from the court could result in legislative and congressional boundaries that are less ideal for Republican candidates. And the state’s opponents are also hoping the legal wrangling could lead to Texas being placed back under federal electoral oversight years after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling freed them from that guardianship.

The state is expected to make its case and present its own witnesses later in the week. In legal filings, state attorneys have argued that the court-drawn maps the Legislature adopted in 2013 adequately addressed their foes’ claims. They’ve also asserted that the state is not liable for any intentional discrimination in the 2013 maps because the courts were behind the mapmaking.

The panel of judges presiding over this week’s trial ruled in April that Texas lawmakers intentionally in 2011 undercut the political clout of voters of color with its 2011 maps and created House districts that resulted in “even less proportional representation” for minority voters.

They found that Texas lawmakers either violated the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting the strength of minority voters with those House districts — echoing their earlier ruling that many of the congressional districts did the same thing.

Some of those issues were addressed in the temporary, court-drawn maps the Legislature adopted. But some lines remained the same.

The trial is expected to conclude on Friday or Saturday. The court will also hear arguments over the state’s congressional map.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Trial over Texas political maps starts in San Antonio

Texas Supreme Court sends same-sex marriage benefits case back to lower court

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday threw out a lower court ruling that favored of government-subsidized same-sex marriage benefits and sent the Houston case back to trial court for reconsideration.

The case was part of Texas Republicans’ ongoing fight against the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and led to the enactment of benefits policies for married same-sex couples.

At the center of the Houston case is whether that ruling — known as Obergefell v. Hodges — requires city and other governmental agencies to extend those taxpayer-subsidized benefits to same-sex spouses of government employees. Following that ruling, public employers in Texas, including state agencies and public universities — quickly extended such benefits. 

But in an attempt to re-litigate the high court’s decision, two taxpayers — represented by same-sex marriage opponents — are suing Houston over its policy.

They’ve argued that the interpretation of Obergefell is too broad and that the right to marry does not “entail any particular package of tax benefits, employee fringe benefits or testimonial privileges.” (In a separate case against the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, the Texas attorney general’s office actually argued that marriage is a right that comes with benefits the state is entitled to control.) 

Lawyers for the city of Houston argued, in part, that opponents are without a legal avenue to even pursue their claims because the city’s policy is protected under Obergefell, which they pointed out explicitly addressed “marriage-related benefits. 

During a March hearing, Douglas Alexander, the lawyer who defended Houston’s benefits policy, told the court that the case was moot under Obergefell’s guarantee that all marriages be equally regarded.

Jonathan Mitchell, the former solicitor general for the state and the lawyer representing opponents of the Houston policy, argued that marriage benefits are not a fundamental right and that Obergefell did not resolve questions surrounding such policies..

But throughout the hearing, the justices instead focused on jurisdiction and standing.

The decision by the Texas Supreme Court to take up the case was regarded as an unusual move because it had previously declined to take it up last year. That allowed a lower court decision, which upheld benefits for same-sex couples, to stand.

But the state’s highest civil court reversed course in January after receiving an outpouring of letters opposing the decision. They also faced pressure from Texas GOP leadership — spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who asked the court to clarify that Obergefell does not include a “command” to public employers regarding employee benefits.

That request to the court came more than a year after state agencies moved to extend benefits to spouses of married gay and lesbian employees just days after the high court’s ruling. As of Aug. 31, 584 same-sex spouses had enrolled in insurance plans — including health, dental or life insurance — subsidized by the state, according to a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System, which oversees benefits for state employees.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas Supreme Court sends same-sex marriage benefits case back to lower court

Texas Hispanics behind half of state’s growth since 2010

The state’s population is still booming, and Hispanic Texans are driving a large portion of that growth. 

New population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau show that just over half of Texas’ population increase since 2010 can be attributed to a rapidly growing Hispanic community and its expanding presence in nearly every corner of the state.

As of July 2016, the Texas population nearly reached 27.9 million — up from 25.1 million in 2010. More than 1.4 million of that 2.7 million increase was among Hispanic Texans. Meanwhile, the white population only increased by about 444,000 people.

Put another way: Since 2010, Texas has gained more than three times as many Hispanic residents than whites.

White Texans remain the largest demographic group in the state, making up almost 43 percent of the population. But their growth rate since 2010 is easily trumped by growth among Texans of color.

Loading…

Asians make up a small share of the state’s population — almost 5 percent — but the Asian community in Texas is growing rapidly. In recent years, demographers identified new immigration patterns to the state that are driven by an increase in the rate of immigrants moving here from Asia.

The black community continues to grow in Texas, but their share of the population has remained mostly unchanged, hovering just below 12 percent. Meanwhile, white Texans’ share of the state’s population has continued to drop since 2010 as Hispanics’ share has increased, reaching 39 percent in 2016.

This growth is also reflected at the county level where Hispanics’ share of the population has increased in all but 11 counties since 2010. Meanwhile, whites’ share of the population has dropped in all but a handful of Texas counties.

The estimated population growth among Texans of color, particularly Hispanics, sets up the state to face significant political and economic repercussions in the coming years.

The rapid growth among Hispanics and Asians comes as the state is inching toward its next redistricting cycle when, after the 2020 census, state lawmakers will be required to rejigger boundaries for congressional and legislative districts in response to population growth.

The growing diversity in the state, particularly among younger Texans, will also play into the development of the future workforce. A large majority of the youngest Texans are people of color who also make up most of the student population in the state’s public schools.

But the educational achievement gap between students of color and white students persists. Demographers have warned that the state’s failure to close those gaps could hurt the competitiveness of the state’s workforce as those students become of age. 

Loading…

Nationally, Texas is also leading in terms of Hispanic growth even among states with the biggest Hispanic communities.

While California still easily bests Texas for the largest Hispanic population in the country, Texas had the largest numeric increase among Hispanics since the last census. That trend also held from 2015 to 2016, when Texas gained the most Hispanics — 233,100 residents — compared to 176,198 in California.  

Home to Houston, Harris County gained more Hispanic residents — 39,600 — than any other county in the country.

Unsurprisingly, Texas was also home to counties with some of the highest shares of Hispanic residents. Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley had the highest Hispanic share of the population — 96.3 percent — in the country. 

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas Hispanics behind half of state’s growth since 2010

Appeals court to weigh Texas voting law limiting language interpreters

Amid last-minute efforts to overhaul the state’s voter identification law in light of an ongoing legal fight, the Texas Legislature gaveled out without addressing another embattled election law that’s now moving forward in federal court.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday will take up a legal challenge to an obscure provision in the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help.

That state law has been on hold since last year after a federal district judge ruled it violated the federal Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

“There’s nothing that’s being imposed. The state just needs to get out of the way,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program. 

AALDEF brought the lawsuit against the voting law on behalf of the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans and the late Mallika Das, a Williamson County resident who was unable to get help from her son to cast her ballot in 2014.

A U.S. citizen born in India, Das had brought her son, Saurabh, to help her vote. She spoke Bengali, an Asian dialect, and her limited English proficiency had made it difficult in the past. But when Saurabh told poll workers he intended to interpret the ballot for his mother, an election official determined he didn’t meet the state’s voter registration requirements because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.

Das’ voting dilemma, which jumpstarted the legal challenge, illustrates the complexities behind Texas’ election requirements that language-minority voters are left to navigate.

One provision of state election code allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter.”  A separate provision governs “assistors” and says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.” 

The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.

The state has argued the interpreter provision of state law is constitutional and “supplemental” to the minimum requirements set forth by the Voting Rights Act.

Attorneys for the state have also acknowledged that Williamson County erroneously “conflated the two provisions.” Had Saurabh said he was assisting his mother — not interpreting the English ballot for her — he would have been allowed to join her in the voting booth to help her cast a proper vote, state attorneys have conceded.

That distinction “arbitrarily” restricts voters with limited English proficiency and is “illustrative” of “why particular words matter,” U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman said in an August ruling against the state. And the Texas interpreter restrictions “flatly contradict” the Voting Rights Act, he added. 

After Pitman scolded the state, two Democratic lawmakers sought to simplify the issue earlier this year by nixing the interpreter section of state law altogether — a proposal that picked up endorsements from the Texas Association of Election Administrators, the League of Women Voters, MALDEF and the Texas Democratic Party.

 But their peers showed little appetite to address the issue.

 “I don’t see how we could in legislative action place a criteria that would limit it more than a constitutional standard,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who filed one of the measures during this year’s regular legislative session that would’ve only left in place the assistor provision. “I just don’t think the state is serious about the right to vote or access to the election box. We just seem to bend over backwards to place barriers instead of working to increase voter turnout.”

Her legislation to bring the state in line with federal law languished in the Senate State Affairs Committee after colleagues raised concerns that it would allow voters to obtain help at the polls from noncitizens, Garcia said. The voter registration requirement by default requires the interpreter to be a U.S. citizen and 18 years old.

But sometimes voters ask their minor children to help them cast their ballots, Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero of Fort Worth told the House Elections Committee during an April hearing. His proposal was similar to Garcia’s and also did not advance out of committee.

Despite the intricacies between interpreters and assistors, the case could ultimately come down to a question of standing if the state has its way. 

The Texas Attorney General’s office, which is representing the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment on pending litigation. But in a brief filed with the 5th Circuit, state attorneys argued that the lower court erred in its ruling by allowing the lawsuit to move forward despite Das’ death before there was a judgment in the lower court. 

The remaining plaintiffs in the case — the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans — “rode the coattails” of the former lead plaintiff, Das, “by arguing that her alleged injuries, accrued in Williamson County, may befall its members in Harris County,” the AG’s office wrote in its filing.

They also contend that the state shouldn’t be a party in the case because local authorities — and not the Secretary of State whose office oversees elections — implemented the interpreter provisions.

The New Orleans-based appellate court will take up the case in its morning session on Thursday. 

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Appeals court to weigh Texas voting law limiting language interpreters

Texas lawmakers, “bathroom bill” opponents prepare for round two

Among the Elder family’s dinnertime conversations last year was nailing down which sports their son Ben wanted to try out over the summer.

This time around, with school out for the summer — but state lawmakers set to come back to Austin for an overtime round — they’ll be left to wonder whether their 11-year-old transgender son will lose the ability to use the boys’ bathroom. 

“My fear is that if the special session happens and some law passes, that’s going to take the decision out of their hands,” said Ann Elder, who has spent the past year meeting with school administrators to make sure Ben’s accommodations are all set up when he starts middle school in the fall. 

District officials and Ben’s elementary school teachers and counselors have worked with the Elder family throughout his transition by calling him by whatever name he wanted and treating him like “he wanted to be treated,” Ann says. They first allowed him to use a bathroom in the nurse’s office but then signed off on letting him use the boys’ bathroom when Ann Elder realized he had been holding it in for the entire school day.

With Ben moving on to the sixth grade, Ann Elder was relieved to find that his middle school was “beyond supportive,” and she got a temporary reprieve from concerns that the Legislature would get in the way of that when efforts to regulate which bathrooms transgender Texans can use fizzled out amid a legislative stalemate at the end of their regular session. 

But Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced he was calling lawmakers back for legislative overtime in a special session beginning July 18 — and bathroom restrictions are on the agenda.

It’s unclear whether any bathroom regulations will make it out of a special session, where lawmakers have a much shorter window to send proposals to the governor’s desk. But the governor’s decision to extend a divisive, months-long debate on the issue and give lawmakers a second chance to pass a “bathroom bill” has pushed a dark cloud of uncertainty back over transgender Texans and their families.

“That’s going to put [school officials] in a really awkward situation because they’re going to have to enforce this even if they don’t want to,” Ann Elder said in a recent interview. “And then it’s going to force Ben and I to figure out how we’re going to handle it or do we just exit the public school system.”

Abbott’s special session announcement and the inclusion of bathroom restrictions comes after months of legislative bickering and an unprecedented show of force at the Capitol by transgender Texans and their allies.

The controversial bathroom proposals easily dominated the legislative session: Folks on both sides of the issue gathered at the Capitol for protests, lobbying days and rallies on the issue. Lawmakers held two overnight hearings during which transgender Texans and their families pleaded with them to not pull back established protections against discrimination and accommodations they’ve obtained. And the proposals even led to Republican infighting — including two sets of dueling press conferences — about legislative inaction.

All of that is likely to pick back up in July for round two.

New legislation

Soon after Abbott’s announcement, Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton confirmed he would once again push his proposal from the regular session — House Bill 2899 — to outlaw municipal and school districts’ trans-inclusive bathroom policies.

“The main concern is our schools and making sure that privacy is protected in those arenas,” Simmons said. 

A spokesman for state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who authored the Senate’s more restrictive measure, Senate Bill 6, did not respond to a request for comment on whether she would file a bill with similar language.

Both measures died in the House under Speaker Joe Straus, who has made clear he opposes bathroom restrictions and offered up a watered-down compromise that some groups said would’ve likely allowed school officials to continue allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. That put Straus in direct opposition to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who contends the measure is needed to improve privacy — and the Senate, which refused to accept anything less than a restrictive, broad measure that would eliminate trans-inclusive bathroom policies.

The impasse could carry over into the special session that Patrick forced Abbott into calling by holding hostage crucial legislation needed to continue some state agencies.

On Tuesday, Abbott said the sunset legislation was used for “political fodder” but still added bathroom restrictions to the list of things he expected lawmakers to address during the 30-day special session.

He also reiterated his support for HB 2899, endorsing it as a way to “establish a single statewide rule protecting the privacy of women and children,” but he indicated he’d settle for restrictions focused on public schools.

“At a minimum, we need a law that protects the privacy of our children in our public schools” Abbott said.

A united front of opposition

After largely staying out of the bathroom debate, Abbott echoed social conservatives who for months have used privacy as the main argument for why bathroom restrictions are necessary. Though they’ve provided virtually no evidence, they’ve claimed that trans-inclusive bathroom policies allow individuals to enter bathrooms of the opposite gender for nefarious reasons.

That’s been met by loud opposition from LGBT advocates, civil rights groups, school groups, business groups and major corporations who offered a mostly united front during the legislative session in labeling the proposals as discriminatory and hurtful to an already vulnerable population.

The debate has also helped galvanize a community of Texans that until recently largely stayed out of the political arena but are now showing no signs of retreating during the special session.

Two years ago, about 80 people traveled to Austin to visit with lawmakers as part of Texas Trans Lobby Day, according to organizers. This year, almost 400 people — including transgender adults and children — traversed the halls of the Capitol as part of their lobbying efforts against bathroom restrictions and other legislation they deemed harmful to transgender Texans.

“I never thought I’d see that many people show up in Texas on a topic specifically related to trans people,” Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, said of the hundreds of individuals who packed the Capitol for the first committee hearing on the Senate bathroom bill. “It continued to happen over and over again…These people are continuing to show up.”

Among them will be the parents of transgender children who expressed mixed feelings of relief, gratitude and frustration after the regular session ended without passage of a “bathroom bill.”

“To be very honest with you, this legislative session has been really hard for me,” Ann Elder said after the Legislature adjourned. “I just feel like I’m fighting a losing battle, and I don’t think anybody cares other than the other families. I’m feeling very bleak about the situation.”

Others are using the defeat of the proposals during the regular session to rejoice and regroup on their efforts to fight similar efforts by continuing to personalize the issue.

“We’re regular families. I drive a minivan and listen to country music. My husband is the president of our church. We’re just like you,” said Amber Briggle, the mother of transgender fourth grader named Max. “I think we’ve made it relatable, and more and more transgender Texans like my son are standing up and speaking up, and it shifts your understanding of what it means to be transgender when it’s someone you know, when it’s so personal … I think that made a difference.”

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas lawmakers, “bathroom bill” opponents prepare for round two