U.S. Supreme Court rejects GOP challenge to WA voter act. How it affects Franklin Latinos

The U.S. Supreme Court declined this week to review a Washington Supreme Court case upholding changes to how elected officials in Franklin County are voted into office.

The high court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari filed in December by James Gimenez, a Republican precinct committee officer from Franklin County who argued that Washington’s Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.

The petition was distributed for conference last week and the denial was issued this week.

Gimenez is the trial court intervenor in Portugal v. Franklin County, who appealed the decision up to the state Supreme Court.

He wants to overturn the settlement that brought an end to a years-long legal battle between the county and a group of Latino voters, who argued they weren’t getting a fair shake at electing a candidate because their votes were being diluted.

Those voters argued that Franklin County’s commissioner districts split up the largely Latino section of east Pasco, diluting their ability to elect candidates of their choice. Hispanic and Latinos make up 55% of Franklin County’s population, according to the U.S. Census.

They also argued that at-large voting allowed during the general election made it easier for White voters living outside the district to water down their candidate selection.

In the end, the county kept its commission district boundaries, but ultimately changed to to district-based voting during the general election.

“By leaving the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in place, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that states have the power to enact laws that secure the rights of all voters, particularly those in minority communities,” said Sonni Waknin, program manager and counsel at the UCLA Voting Rights Project.

“This outcome is not only a victory for the people of Washington, but it’s also an important advancement of voting rights across the U.S. It encourages the work of the UCLA (Voting Rights Project) to continue to fight for equitable access in the ballot in every corner of the nation,” she continued.

The group helped voters Gabriel Portugal, Brandon Morales, Jose Corral and the League of United Latin American Citizens bring the case against Franklin County after it had finished redrawing its county commission maps following the decennial census.

Gimenez’s petition was a long shot effort to overturn a case that’s settled at this point.

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t under any obligation to hear these types of review cases, and it usually only does in the instance of widespread national significance or precedence, according to a U.S. Courts webpage.

Each year, the court accepts about 2% of the roughly 7,000 cases that it is asked to review.

2024 Franklin County elections

The county’s May 2022 settlement ensures that county commissioner elections will be more competitive starting this year.

Democrat Ana Ruiz Kennedy, a Latina who immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, already has vowed to re-challenge Republican Franklin County commission incumbent Rocky Mullen for his seat in November.

The two will square off to represent District 2, which is made up of eastern Franklin County. That includes downtown and east Pasco, the Tri-Cities Airport, Connell, Kahlotus and Mesa.

The Washington Supreme Court’s June 15 decision in the Portugal v. Franklin County case was hailed as a big win for voting rights across the state.

It was also seen as a resounding victory for Washington’s Voting Rights Act, which aims to protect “race, color or language minority groups” from systems that would deny them the chance of electing candidates of their choice. The law, passed by the state Legislature in 2018, paved the way for governments to dismantle existing at-large election systems.

Gimenez and his lawyer argued to the state that the law protects some racial groups while excluding others, and that some groups were favored.

But in a 44-page opinion, Justice Mary Yu shot down their interpretation of the law and their definition of protected classes as “incorrect.”

“Gimenez’s argument cannot succeed because his reading of the statute is incorrect,” she wrote. “The WVRA protects all Washington voters from discrimination on the basis of race, color and language minority groups.”