9th Court interprets elections after Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court.

Rodriguez, et al.  v. Beaumont Independent School District, et al.,  No. 09-13-00434-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, October 17, 2013)

In this case the Beaumont Court of Appeals was asked to see how the recent U.S. Supreme Court declaration that portions of the federal Voting Rights Act are unconstitutional affects a local election.  This is a 24 page opinion out of an interlocutory appeal from a temporary injunction order.

Prior to the 2010 census, all seven BISD trustees were elected from single-member districts.  In May 2011 the voters changed the system to a five single-member and two at-large districts (a 5-2 plan).  Rodriquez and company are 3 individuals who filed to run in the aborted May 2013 election (moved to November by Legislature to be federally compliant) and were denied a placed on the ballot (separate federal suit). BISD failed to obtain preclearance.  The trial court held the 5-2 plan was not capable of being approved in federal court so allowed the Board to conduct its election under a seven single-member district plan with no at-large districts and on a non-statutory election date (based on a 1985 federal order).

The 9th Court of Appeals disapproved of the trial court’s reasoning as federal law no longer requires BISD to obtain preclearance and it must now comply with state law. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Shelby Cnty., Ala. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612, 2631 (2013), the federal district court dismissed BISD’s preclearance lawsuit (noted above). In dismissing the federal suit, the U.S. District Court expressly recognized that the matter was now purely an issue of state court law. Both parties asked the 172nd District Court to solve a problem that resulted from the federal court’s imposing preclearance requirements on an election authorized by a statute whose preclearance requirements have now been rendered unenforceable as a collateral consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision.

However, the plans proposed by both BISD and the putative trustees are each inconsistent with the 5-2 manner of electing trustees adopted by BISD’s voters. BISD wanted the defunct 7 single-member districts and the putative trustees argued that since the May election did not happen when it should have, they should be automatically seated as trustees.  The 9th Court held BISD has no authority to conduct an election on a date inconsistent with state law. And now, under federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice bears the burden of proof (not merely the ability to object) that an election map is racially discriminatory and must bring suit under the surviving sections of the Act. BISD retains the power to manage the logistics of an election which is consistent with Texas law but that must include the voter’s choice for a 5-2 plan. In other words, both parties won part and lost part. But since this was an interlocutory order, the final resolution must be decided by the trial court after a trial on the merits.

For you litigators out there, the court also went into some detail about the standards for temporary injunctions and what it means to go “far beyond” preserving the status quo and rendering a decision on the merits after only an injunction hearing.  If you are not a litigator, just ignore that part.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.