Decades after San Antonio and other Texas cities scrapped city wide 'at large' election of City Council members, a trial opens today in federal court Corpus Christi in a lawsuit seeking to mandate single member district election of judges to the state's top two courts, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law claims that, just like at-large City Council districts were seen as restricting the rights of minority voters, the current method of elected Justices of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court by statewide vote restricts issues key to Hispanics, African Americans and other groups from getting a fair hearing before the courts.
“The way in which Texas elects judges to two of the state’s highest courts denies minority voters a fair opportunity to elect judges of their choice,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Bringing Texas state courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act can help instill greater public confidence in the state’s justice system and may lead to greater diversity. In our opening arguments, we observe that voting discrimination persists across the state and outline extensive evidence making clear that Texas’s method of electing judges violates the Voting Rights Act.”
Indeed, eight of the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court today are Anglo. Despite the fact that Anglos make up only 42% of the state's population. In a increasingly diverse Texas, Non Hispanic Whites continue to make up the largest single demographic, and the plaintiffs will argue that at large districts allow Anglo voters to overcome minority populations and select the judges of their choice.
Single member districts became popular in the 1970s, because, due to self-segregation, minority groups have a tendency to live in the same communities, and having districts comprising those communities make it easier for minority voters to elect a representative, or judge, of their choice to represent the interests in that community.
Plaintiffs say with nearly every major issue which confronts lawmakers today, from abortion to the death penalty to education funding, decided in the courts after the group that loses in the Legislature files a lawsuit, the courts of last resort, the Texas Supreme Court for civil matters and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal matters, are more important than ever in the current climate, and it is critical to make sure all voices are represented on those courts.
“For too long the voice of the Latino community has been missing from the critical secret conference rooms of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Carmen Rodriguez, plaintiff in this case and longtime civil rights attorney and activist from El Paso. “It is vital that we bring the promise of the Voting Rights Act to the selection process of the members of these august judicial bodies.”
But the state will argue that, unlike City Council members, judges are not meant to be 'representatives of a group of people.' The purpose of a judge is to decide a case on its legal merits impartially, and without taking the wishes of a particular ethic or racial group into consideration.