Federal Judge Finds Voting Scheme Racist in Pasadena, Texas

HOUSTON (CN) — Discrimination still festers in a Texas city that was the Ku Klux Klan’s state headquarters in the 1980s, a federal judge ruled, finding a redistricting plan spearheaded by its white mayor intentionally diluted the Hispanic vote.

Pasadena, pop. 149,285, part of greater Houston, is a Hispanic-majority city known for its refineries, chemical plants and strawberry festival. It was named after the California city.

The KKK had a bookstore in the middle of the town in the 1980s and intimidated Hispanic residents by burning crosses, carrying high-powered rifles in public and wearing their white robes on the street outside their headquarters building, according to testimony in a recent seven-day bench trial.

Hispanic residents complained several times in the 1990s about a cozy relationship between Klan members and the Pasadena Police Department, according to the Jan. 6 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal.

Despite the hostilities, Latinos kept moving to the city, drawn by its cheap housing and abundant jobs, and by 2010, they made up 62.1 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census.

Years of discriminatory housing policies, however, have effectively created two cities in Pasadena, according to the case record.

“Most Latino residents live in North Pasadena, which is separated from the predominantly Anglo South Pasadena by the Spencer Highway. South Pasadena’s streets, sewage, recreation areas, and other basic infrastructure elements and amenities are much better than North Pasadena’s,” Rosenthal wrote in her 113-page ruling.

Pasadena City Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler testified that the city built new sidewalks in a north Pasadena neighborhood only after teachers at a middle school submitted a petition to the City Council, complaining that students had to walk in the street to get to school, and media outlets publicized the concerns.

Pasadena officials approved a redistricting map and plan in 2011 that created eight single-member districts for the City Council, under which Hispanic voters in 2013 “elected their candidates of choice in three of the four Latino-majority districts” and a Latino candidate with a white-sounding name, Wheeler, won another district.

With the city’s demographics shift reflected in the 2013 vote, Mayor Johnny Isbell saw the writing on the wall: that by 2015 a majority of the City Council would be the chosen candidates of Latino voters.

Isbell, a white man, was elected mayor in 2009 and reelected in 2013. He is term-limited and can’t run again in 2017. Eager to find a way to retain his power that often saw him casting the deciding 5-4 vote on issues before the City Council, Isbell got some unexpected help from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 ruling in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required some cities, counties and states with a history of voting discrimination to get federal permission to make any election-rule changes, was unconstitutional.

Within days of the ruling, Isbell asked the city staff to draw maps to see how a 6-2 district, with six single-member districts and two at-large districts, would look, according to Rosenthal’s ruling.

Single-member districts are set by geographical boundaries, so only voters living within them can vote for the candidates. At-large districts don’t have those boundaries so candidates are elected by citywide votes.

Isbell acknowledged during the trial that he knew the Department of Justice had opposed other jurisdictions’ attempts to change voting districts to at-large because it dilutes minority voting strength.

“Mayor Isbell gave an interview around November 4, 2013 to SCOTUSblog. He stated that he proposed changing to the 6–2 mixed map and plan promptly after the Shelby County decision ‘because the Justice Department can no longer tell Pasadena what to do,’” the ruling states.

Isbell and his supporters got the proposed map change on the Nov. 5, 2013 ballot, and Pasadena voters approved Proposition 1 by 79 votes — 3,292 to 3,213 — or 1.2 percent, with 99.6 percent of Latinos voting against it.

Isbell then cast the deciding 5-4 vote for the city to adopt the new map at two City Council meetings in April 2014, leading to a federal lawsuit in November 2014, in which a Latino voter claimed the new map purposely diluted Hispanic voting power.

Rosenthal agreed on Friday. She didn’t buy Isbell and the city’s claims that Isbell pushed for the new map to give his Republican Party a leg up in city elections, not to discriminate against Latinos, and that he supports some Latino candidates, which proves he is not racist.

Rosenthal cited evidence that Isbell pushed to get Proposition 1 on the ballot even after members of a committee he asked to study the proposed map change voted 10-1 against it; and the 99 percent of Latino voters who voted against the proposition, to show that Isbell and the city knew the map would have a discriminatory impact on the city’s Hispanic voters.

She backed her order with excerpts from the Fifth Circuit’s July 2016 ruling in a challenge to Texas’ voter ID law, Veasey v. Abbott, in which the en banc majority found the law had a discriminatory impact on left-leaning poor, minority voters who are less likely than whites to have one of seven acceptable forms of ID.

The New Orleans-based appellate court remanded the case to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi, to decide whether the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature’s claim that it passed the law for constituents concerned about voter fraud is a cover for intentional voter discrimination.

“The Veasey majority noted that the voter-identification legislation ‘was subjected to radical departures from normal procedures,’ providing some indication that ‘the Legislature’s race-neutral reason of ballot integrity … is pretextual. The present record is similar,” Rosenthal wrote, noting that Isbell sent Proposition 1 to voters over the objections of a committee that “decisively recommended against the redistricting plan.”

“In short, Pasadena’s elections are racially polarized. The city’s 2013 racially polarized vote in favor of the 6–2 redistricting map and plan and the council’s 2014 vote to approve the change were narrowly decided. The effect was to dilute Latino voting strength. That effect was foreseeable and foreseen,” Rosenthal wrote.

She ordered Pasadena to get rid of the new at-large districts, and use the old map with eight single-member districts for its May 2017 City Council elections.

She also granted the plaintiff’s requests that Pasadena must get permission from the Department of Justice for any more changes to its voting district maps, and that she retain jurisdiction over the case for a yet-to-be decided time period to review any proposed changes to the city’s voting districts.

Rosenthal, a George W. Bush appointee, is chief judge of the Southern District of Texas.

Robert Heath with Bickerstaff, Delgado Heath and Acosta in Austin represented Isbell and the city. Heath said he is considering whether to appeal.

“We respectfully disagree with the decision that we acted with an intent to discriminate or dilute the votes and we disagree that the plan had that affect,” Heath said in an interview.

Isbell and the city hired Heath’s law firm to draw up the disputed voter-district map in the spring of 2014 for review by the Pasadena City Council.