Federal Court To Consider Whether Texas' System For Electing Judges Hurts Latinos

Jan 16, 2018

A federal court in Corpus Christi will hear a case Feb. 12 challenging the way Texas voters elect judges for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court. Voters and civil rights groups challenging the system say it makes it harder for Latinos to be represented.

The case was filed in the summer of 2016. Austin attorney Jose Garza said he had reviewed past elections for those high courts and found that for the last few decades, every candidate who was supported by the Latino community lost.

“Over the last 25 years, the Latino community has had no voice at the table in terms of the very important decisions that come out of those august bodies," he said.

He, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and others say the state is violating the Voting Rights Act.

“The promise of the Voting Rights Act is that the minority community will have a voice at the table in all our political and governmental institutions,” Garza said.

Garza said the state's judgeship elections for high courts, in particular, need to be in compliance with the act. Texas is among a small number of states that pick judges through partisan elections.

“In that sense, Texas is fairly unique," he said, "and, I think, that lends itself all the more to the issue of [whether the system is] racially fair."

There are three elements creating a situation in Texas that makes it difficult for Latinos to get elected, said Michael Li, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice.

In addition to partisan elections, he said, different ethnicities and races tend to favor one political party over another. There's also the fact that Texas voters elect judges using an at-large system, which means the whole state decides who sits in what seat on the courts. In a district system, the seats are divvied up among districts, and the voters in each district decide each judge.

These elements together create a disadvantage for minority communities, Li said.

“If any of those ... changed, then things might be a little bit different,” he said. “It’s sort of a toxic combination of the three that means that minority communities get locked out of the system.”

The parties challenging the system are specifically asking the court to change the at-large voting part of this equation.

Garza said he wants the state to break up the seats into nine districts. That way, each district could elect someone who represents them and not the whole state.

Louisiana used to have an election system for judges similar to that of Texas, but many years ago, a court ordered the state to hold districted elections.

This post has been updated to change the date of the hearing. The court was closed Tuesday because of the weather.