The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed last week a lower court’s finding that redistricting efforts by Texas’ Galveston County constituted racial gerrymandering, but raised concerns over whether the legal precedent underlying the decision complied with the legislative intent of the US Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Between 1991 and 2021, Galveston County had four voting districts, one of which had majority-minority status given that its combined Black and Hispanic populations comprised more than half of the district’s residents (58% as of 2020). This status afforded the district’s voters special legal protections under Section 2 of the VRA.
A revised districting plan implemented in 2021 by the Galveston County Commissioners Court dropped the majority-minority district from the map.
Alleging the redistricting effort had diluted the Black and Hispanic voters’ rights under the VRA, a group of petitioners sued the county.
The US District Court for the Southern District of Texas last month ruled in favor of the petitioners, finding that the redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act by denying Black and Hispanic voters the opportunity to equally participate in the political process. The county then appealed.
At issue is whether the district qualified for special protected status under the VRA given that neither the Black nor Hispanic populations were large enough on their own to qualify for majority-minority protection — a fact agreed upon by both parties to the lawsuit, according to court documents. The Fifth Circuit has argued that the dilution of a majority-minority district where none of the racial minorities on their own comprises 51 percent of the voting population does not qualify as gerrymandering.
On appeal, Fifth Circuit acknowledged existing precedent in the circuit allowing minority groups to be aggregated for majority-minority districting purposes, thus finding that the lower court had properly applied the law. But the circuit court also found that the precedent was inconsistent with the text of the VRA. Accordingly, the court called for a rehearing en banc to reconsider the validity of minority-coalition claims.
The circuit court requested a poll on whether the case should be reheard en banc.
NB: An earlier version of this article, published on Nov. 10, 2023, incorrectly stated that the Fifth Circuit had agreed to rehear the gerrymandering case; in fact, the court affirmed the gerrymandering decision based on precedent, but ordered a poll regarding a potential en banc hearing to determine whether the judicial precedent complies with Section 2 of the VRA.