Houston, TX – The City of Pasadena, Texas illegally and intentionally sought to dilute Latino voting power when it changed the system used to elect its city council members, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s decision follows a two-week trial last month during which attorneys for MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) challenged the city’s decision to move from an eight single-member district system to a hybrid system that eliminated two neighborhood districts and replaced them with at-large seats making it harder for Latinos to have a greater voice in local government.
“The Court’s well-reasoned decision is a clear warning to other jurisdictions that might seek to limit Latino voting power by taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the protections of pre-clearance in the notorious Shelby County case,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “The decision is also a repudiation of those, including congressional leaders, who facilely assert that intentional vote discrimination no longer occurs and that the protections of pre-clearance are no longer needed.”
In ruling, Rosenthal concluded that the city not only violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, but also purposefully intended to discriminate against Latino voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, writing that: “In short, Pasadena’s elections are racially polarized. The City’s 2013 racially polarized vote in favor of the 6–2 redistricting map and plan and the Council’s 2014 vote to approve the change were narrowly decided. The effect was to dilute Latino voting strength. That effect was foreseeable and foreseen.”
Because Friday’s decision found intentional racial discrimination, the federal court also used its discretion to require the city to obtain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any future changes to its election system.
“The federal district court has soundly disabused Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell of his view that he can violate Latino voting rights and, as he put it, the ‘Department of Justice no longer can tell us what to do,'” said Nina Perales, MALDEF vice president of litigation and lead counsel for plaintiffs in the case. “A federal court has declared his actions illegal and unconstitutional, and placed Pasadena under federal supervision for future election changes.”
Pasadena’s decision to alter its elections came as the city’s Latino voters were poised to elect their preferred candidates in five of the eight single-member districts.
Latino registered voters in Pasadena have grown from 30.6 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Census.
The current hybrid system reduces Latinos’ ability to elect a candidate of their choice because the city’s white majority tends to vote as a bloc. Moreover, minority voters often cannot shoulder the high cost of campaigning across the entire city, making it harder for Latinos to elect candidates they prefer.
The lawsuit is the first successful challenge to a local effort to change an election system since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that would have required Pasadena to obtain federal approval before implementing a hybrid election system. That provision required states and localities with a history of discrimination to obtain approval from the U.S Department of Justice before implementing any changes to their voting systems.
Pasadena Mayor Isabell moved to change the city’s election system less than a month after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Under today’s court decision, the city, by court order, will once again be required to seek pre-clearance before making any changes to its council plan and map.
Read the decision HERE.