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

Following a Pasadena City Council vote to settle a voting rights lawsuit over how it redrew its council districts in 2013, the city will remain under federal oversight for any changes to its voting laws until 2023 — the only setup of its kind in Texas.

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.

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