On July 20, 2016, the Lawyers’ Committee, Garza Golando Moran, PLLC, and Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of individual Latino voters alleging that the method of electing Texas’s Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals are the two highest courts in the state and decide critical issues of state civil and criminal law, respectively.
All 18 high court judges in Texas, nine for each court, are elected statewide. Because white Texans comprise the majority of the citizen voting age population (CVAP) in the state, and because Latinos consistently prefer different candidates than do whites, Latino-preferred candidates are almost never elected to the highest levels of the state’s judiciary. The VRA prohibits such vote dilution, and the state could develop and implement a more representational electoral method.
Texas’s Latino CVAP comprises 26.5% of the state’s CVAP while white Texans comprise 56.4%. With Latinos in the minority and voting polarized along racial lines, Latinos have been significantly underrepresented on both courts for decades. Since 1945, only two of the 48 judges to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, a mere 4.2%, were Latino. Over the same time period, only five of the 77 justices to serve on the Supreme Court, or 6.5%, were Latino.
Plaintiffs in the case include six individual voters from Nueces County and an individual voter from El Paso County. On September 19, 2016, the complaint was amended to add as an organization plaintiff, La Union del Pueblo Entero, Inc. (LUPE), a Texas nonprofit membership corporation comprised largely of farm workers and other low wage workers who reside in Texas. LUPE was founded by Cesar Chavez to help meet the advocacy and organizing needs of low wage workers and their families. The organization has more than 7,000 members, many of whom are Texas registered voters. LUPE uses its resources to promote civic engagement, including voting.
Because Texas’s judges largely represent only one subset of Texas voters, there are serious questions as to whether all of the circumstances of a diverse population are fully considered. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears all death penalty cases in the state. From 1977 to 2010, of the 92 executions of Latinos nationwide, 78 were executed in Texas. Recent Supreme Court decisions of critical importance to racial minorities, including a May 2016 ruling limiting school funding for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, were issued without so much as a dissent.