Supreme Court allows Texas county to use a map judges deemed a racial gerrymander

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed a Texas county to use a map in the next election that judges had ruled was racially gerrymandered.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented as the conservative majority in a brief order said Republican-led Galveston County could use a map drawn in 2021 that challengers said wiped out the county’s only majority-minority precinct in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The map, the plaintiffs said, discriminates against both Black and Latino voters.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a brief dissenting opinion that the court’s decision means that a map that a district court judge had subsequently approved, which will now not be used, was “concededly lawful … and nearly identical to the maps that have governed the election of Galveston County’s commissioners for decades.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson both joined Kagan’s opinion.

The court rejected emergency requests filed by voters and civil rights groups seeking to put on hold a ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that requires the 2021 map to be used instead of the one ordered by the lower court judge.

In a complicated chain of events, the appeals court initially upheld the judge’s ruling that said the new map was a racial gerrymander under 5th Circuit precedent. But now the appeals court has indicated it is considering overturning that precedent. As a result, the appeals court last week put the district court ruling that would have led to the different map being used on hold.

The underlying legal question is whether the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires a majority-minority district when the minority group is a coalition instead of one racial or ethnic bloc. The precinct in question has a 58% minority vote when Black and Latino voters are combined, the plaintiffs said in court papers.

The county argues that coalitions of voters are not a protected group under the Voting Rights Act. The 2021 map has white majorities in all four precincts.

“In imposing a different map, acknowledged to violate current law … the court of appeals went far beyond its proper authority,” Kagan wrote.