5th Circuit Pauses Ruling Requiring Galveston, County Texas To Implement Fair Districts for 2024

UPDATE: On Dec. 8, 2023, the plaintiffs filed an emergency request in the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to lift the 5th Circuit’s pause of the order requiring Galveston County to adopt new districts. On Dec. 12, the Court denied the request in a 6-3 order, thereby leaving the illegal districts in place.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 11-6 to pause a lower court order that required Galveston County, Texas to implement commissioners courts districts that comply with the Voting Rights Act. 

The ruling stems from a federal lawsuit brought by voters, civil rights organizations and the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the redistricting plan for Galveston County’s Commissioners Court — the county’s primary legislative body — for diluting Black and Latino voting power under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

In an October decision, a Trump-appointed district court judge sided with the plaintiffs after finding that the county’s elimination of its sole, longstanding majority-minority district — composed of a coalition of Black and Latino voters — violated Section 2. 

After the county appealed the lower court’s ruling to the 5th Circuit, a three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s decision decision holding that the county violated Section 2; however in the same order, the panel requested that the entire 5th Circuit reconsider and overturn established precedent that allows distinct minority communities — such as Black and Latino voters — to combined for the purposes of Section 2 vote dilution claims. 

The panel acknowledged that while it is bound by the 5th Circuit’s Section 2 precedent allowing for so-called “minority-coalition claims,” it believes that prior decisions permitting such claims are “wrong as a matter of law.” In a Nov. 28 order, the entire 5th Circuit — known as the en banc court — agreed to rehear the case. 

As the 5th Circuit was deciding to rehear the case en banc, it maintained a pause of the district court’s decision requiring Galveston County to redraw its districts for 2024. As a result of this extended pause, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and unpause the district court’s order. 

While the Supreme Court’s ruling was pending, the 5th Circuit lifted its pause of the district court’s order, meaning that Galveston County was immediately required to enact a VRA-compliant map. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court dismissed as moot the plaintiffs’ emergency request to vacate the 5th Circuit’s stay.

After the district court’s order went back into effect, Galveston County filed a renewed request in the 5th Circuit seeking to freeze the district court’s order, which it granted this afternoon.

In today’s divided ruling — which was issued by the entire panel of 5th Circuit judges that will rehear the case en banc — the majority voted to pause the district court’s order on the basis that it is too close to Texas’ 2024 election to require the implementation of new districts. The opinion specifically relies on the Purcell Principle, which prohibits changes to maps or voting rules too close to an election. 

Despite the fact that Texas’ candidate filing period is currently still open and Texas’ primary election date is not until March 5, 2024, the majority stated that it “is far too late for a federal court to tinker with the machinery of a state election and to displace the [county’s] Original Map.” The Nov. 5, 2024 election is nearly one year away. 

The majority also held that Galveston County “has shown a likelihood of success” in arguing that minority-coalition Voting Rights Act districts are impermissible.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Stephen Higginson — a Democratic appointee who was joined by three other judges — noted that the “the majority’s stay order offers no rebuttal—factual or legal—of the district court’s 150-page opinion entered with firsthand benefit of an evidentiary hearing that lasted 10 days.” 

Higginson’s dissent also critiqued the 5th Circuit’s decision to reconsider its precedent allowing for minority-coalition claims under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act: “[I]t is settled law in our own circuit that nothing in the history or text of the Voting Rights Act prevents members of multiple-minority groups from filing a vote-dilution claim together.” 

The 5th Circuit will rehear the case en banc the week of May 13, 2024. Both the dissent and some members of the majority acknowledged that this date constitutes a major delay in deciding this issue, given that the court could rehear the case and issue a decision many months earlier. 

“There should be no doubt that, in giving ourselves a half-year delay just to hear oral argument to reconsider law that has been ours for decades…we have ensured that the district court’s directive—that Galveston remedy its racially discriminatory redistricting project—will be stymied for an election that will take place approximately a year from now,” Higginson concluded. 

Read the order pausing the order to redraw here.

Learn more about the case here.

Learn more about the Purcell Principle here.