Federal judge rules Galveston County commissioner maps violate Voting Rights Act

Galveston County Commissioner Stephen Holmes chats with activist Roxy D. Hall Williamson after a Galveston County Commissioners Court meeting in Galveston, TX, on Monday, April 4, 2022.
Stephen Holmes is the sole Democrat on the Galveston County Commissioners Court. A federal judge found Friday that the county violated the Voting Rights Act by breaking up communities of color when they redrew his district boundaries. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
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A U.S. District Judge ruled Friday that Galveston County violated the federal Voting Rights Act in 2021 when it drew new districts for its commissioners court.

Judge Jeffrey V. Brown, appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled the county’s 2021 commissioners court precinct map “denies Black and Latino voters the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice to the commissioners court.” As a result, the county has been ordered to redraw the map by Oct. 20.

The lawsuit stands as the first county-level redistricting case since the most recent census that drew intervention from the federal government.

The trial, which began in August, focused on how the county utilized its first opportunity to redraw precincts without federal oversight to break up the sole commissioner precinct where Black and Latino voters made up a majority of the electorate. Precinct 3, where Black and Latino residents had built political groups and selected their representative on the court, was chopped in the 2021 map.

The map split up Black and Latino communities so white voters could make up at least 62% of the electorate in each of the four precincts. Consequently, Black and Latino voters had their electoral power quelled as white voters in Galveston tend to support different candidates.

Prior to the redistricting, Republicans held a 4-1 majority on the court. The only Democrat was Precinct 3’s Stephen Holmes, a Black man who was appointed to the court in 2011 and was kept in office by voters in 2012, 2016 and 2020. No commissioners court election has been held since the new maps were drawn.

As a result of the court’s decision, the nomination or election of county commissioners from the current precinct map may not be administered, enforced, prepared for or permitted. The commissioners court must now adopt a new plan before Nov. 11, 2023, for the upcoming 2024 election.

In addition to the county’s Oct. 20 deadline to file a revised redistricting plan, plaintiffs may file objections to the new map by Oct. 27. The court will conduct an in-person remedial hearing on Nov. 1 to decide whether the new plan will go into effect. If the defendants fail or prefer not to submit a revised plan, they must implement the plan proposed by Anthony Fairfax, an expert witness hired by the plaintiffs, on Aug. 10.

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, a Republican, said in a statement that he was disappointed in the ruling, and that the county planned to appeal.

"The County followed redistricting law and did not engage in any racial discrimination," he said. "We believe this will be vindicated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As County Judge, I have never lost a voting rights act case on appeal."

Residents who challenged the map were met with support from three local branches of the NAACP, a local League of United Latin American Citizens chapter and the U.S. Department of Justice, which found the commissioners court’s move to dismantle Precinct 3 so grievous that it stepped in four months after the map was adopted.

“We are thrilled with today’s decision — now, Black and Latino Galveston residents will once again have a fair shot to influence the decisions that shape their community,” said Sarah Xiyi Chen, attorney for the voting rights program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The residents of Galveston fought hard for this win, sharing their stories and pride from the historic Precinct 3 — we are glad they are finally able to get the relief they deserve. We hope the commissioners court takes this opportunity to draw a new map that ensures that the community will have their votes, voices and needs heard for the next decade.”