Law & Courts

Court Asks Justice Dept. For Views on School Board Voting Cases

By Mark Walsh — October 13, 1999 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court last week asked the Clinton administration for its views on two cases in which Hispanic voters in Texas charge that their local at-large school board elections violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Meanwhile, the court heard a reargument in a voting-rights case involving the Bossier Parish, La., school board. The high court is weighing whether the school board had discrimination in mind in 1992 when it approved a redistricting plan that included no black-majority voting districts.

Michael A. Carvin

Michael A. Carvin, the lawyer for the Bossier Parish, La., school board, discusses his case at the Supreme Court. Last week, the justices considered voting-rights issues involving the board.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

In the Texas cases, the high court’s request for the views of the U.S. solicitor general suggests that the justices may be interested in examining whether at-large voting systems for school boards and other local governmental bodies dilute the electoral power of minorities.

Hispanic voters in the two Texas districts argue in Perez v. Pasadena Independent School District (Case No. 98-1747) and Valdespino v. Alamo Heights Independent School District (No. 98-1987) that at-large systems have prevented or limited their representation on school boards.

Only one Hispanic has ever been elected to the seven-member school board in the Pasadena district, near Houston, despite the fact that Hispanics make up 30 percent of the district’s population. The district, which was formed in 1898, had a total population of 190,000 in the 1990 federal census.

In the Alamo Heights district, near San Antonio, 18 percent of the 1990 total population of 25,000 was Hispanic, yet the school board there has never had a Hispanic member.

Hispanic voters in both cases sued under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows members of a class of citizens to sue in federal court if they believe they do not have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

In both cases, federal district courts and separate panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, ruled that the Hispanic voters had failed to meet a test established by the Supreme Court for establishing minority-dominated voting districts.

Under that test, from the 1986 case of Thornburg v. Gingles, a minority group must show that it is large enough and geographically compact enough to form a majority in a single-member voting district, meaning one in which a board member is elected from a single district. In addition, it must show it that is politically cohesive and that a white majority usually votes as a bloc to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.

In both the Pasadena and Alamo Heights cases, the 5th Circuit court held that Hispanic voters failed the first part of the test because they did not show it was possible to draw a district with a majority population of Hispanic U.S. citizens.

The plaintiffs argue, however, that they should only have to draw a district with a majority-Hispanic voting-age population, regardless of citizenship. “Allowing this decision to stand perpetuates the deprivation of this most basic of fundamental rights in a representative democracy,” the Hispanic voters’ brief argues in the Alamo Heights case.

The Justice Department will likely take several months to respond to the court’s request.

Louisiana Case

In the case from Louisiana’s Bossier Parish that was reargued before the justices Oct. 6, the Supreme Court is considering whether the Voting Rights Act bars the implementation of a redistricting plan that has a discriminatory purpose but is not retrogressive, meaning it does not leave minorities worse off than before.

The high court issued a previous voting-rights decision in the case in 1997 and heard arguments over the discriminatory purpose issue last spring but could not reach a decision before the end of its last term.

The 19,000-student Bossier district is covered by Section 5 of the voting-rights law, which requires federal approval of all voting changes, including redistricting plans.

The school district has defended its 1992 redistricting plan against efforts by the Justice Department to require the creation of two majority-black voting districts. As of 1992, the school board had never had an elected black member, although three black board members have been elected since then.

A special federal district court has twice ruled that the board had legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for adopting a redistricting plan with no black-majority districts. But the Justice Department believes that the board discriminated, and that its plan can be rejected under the Section 5 review process, even though the plan wasn’t retrogressive.

But Michael A. Carvin, the lawyer for the Bossier school board, told the justices last week that a redistricting plan can be rejected under a Section 5 review only when the plan leaves minority voters worse off than before.

“If you have a discriminatory status quo, Section 5 is powerless to address that,” Mr. Carvin argued.

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