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The ghosts of Shelby County rise in JP decision - The Galveston County Daily News: Policybook

October 24, 2016

The ghosts of Shelby County rise in JP decision

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Posted: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 1:52 pm

UPDATE: Six plaintiffs have sued the county, arguing that the new precincts violate the Constitution and voting rights act. The lawsuit is attached. You can read the story here.

For much of Monday's Galveston County Commissioners Court meeting about consolidating the JP precincts, you'd be forgiven if you thought you were in Alabama rather than Texas.

Why? Two words: Shelby County.

The 195,000-person county in Alabama was at the center of one of the most influential Supreme Court cases of the last 10 years: Shelby County v. Holder.

In the case, Shelby County sued the federal government, arguing that two sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional. Those two sections a) required certain government agencies to gain U.S. Justice Department clearance before changing voting districts; and b) set out the criteria to determine whether a government agency was subject to the "preclearance" requirement.

It would take too much time to review the court's decision in toto (you can read it here), but essentially the high court sided with Shelby County and tossed the preclearance requirement.

So what's that got to do with Galveston County? Well, the county became the first agency/political subdivision in Texas to redistrict after the Shelby decision.

For the better part of an hour during Monday's meeting, Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the court's only Democrat, pounded the attorney who drew the new JP maps about the Shelby decision and previous efforts to redistrict the JP precincts.

In 2011, the justice department weighed on similar plans to redistrict. Holmes read from their letter Monday, highlighting passages that intimated that some residents were worried about losing minority representation in the JP ranks.

Holmes' overarching theme seemed to be that commissioners should pay close attention to the previous legal precedents and lawsuits — including three that involved Galveston County — that mandated that districts be drawn in such a way as give people of color a chance to elect minorities. 

But here's the new reality. The Supreme Court has ruled that the preclearance requirement and the criteria used to invoke it were unconstitutional. Does that mean the Supreme Court invalidated the previously precinct maps OK’d by the justice department?

That’s exactly what County Commissioner Ryan Dennard said Monday, arguing that the maps that Holmes wanted the county to keep in place were in fact unconstitutional due to the process used to draw them.

The only requirement now under the Voting Rights Act that the county needs to meet lies under Section 2. That section requires the county to make redistricting decisions based on rationality, and not to specifically disenfranchise people of color.

The upshot is this: Redistricting in red states in the South just got a lot easier. Many Supreme Court decisions, like the recent gay marriage decision, won't affect us in Texas anytime soon. Others, like the Obamacare decision, will affect us, but we don't know how. Shelby County vs. Holder is one of the few high court decisions that affects Texans immediately and obviously.

Most likely, of course, the entire situation will have to be resolved in the court. The JPs and constables are expected to file some sort of legal action; perhaps Holmes may too.