Redistricting courts can make Texas elections more fair, representative

Alex Rigney

A federal court case argues minority rights are violated by the current statewide elections of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. To fix it, they say that the courts should be elected by district. Switching to a district system would ensure better representation of different groups within the state, while also keeping the courts responsive to the people.

The case, Lopez v. Abbott, was filed in Corpus Christi in 2016 and could radically alter the highest courts of Texas. For the past 150 or so years, the highest justices of Texas have been directly elected by the entire state, serving staggered terms. This system was designed to keep the courts directly accountable to the will of the people, and statewide elections accomplish this goal.  

However, there are trade-offs. Under this system, our highest judges are far whiter than the state’s population. A Hispanic judge has never been elected to either of the high courts who wasn’t first appointed by a governor to fill a vacant seat. Currently, out of  the 18 judges on the two highest courts of Texas, only two are Hispanic. That’s roughly 11 percent of the seats in a state with nearly 40 percent of people identifying as Hispanic or Latino. One of those judges is not running for re-election, which could make that percentage even lower.

Lopez’s case relies on Section 2 and Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or language. According to the Department of Justice’s website, the Voting Rights Act applies here because federal courts take into account “the extent to which members of the minority group have been elected to public office in the jurisdiction” when deciding
cases related to the Voting Rights Act.

Statewide elections dilute the power of Hispanic voters. Although each vote has the same weight, when a minority group is packed into a district that elects multiple representatives with an overwhelming majority, their votes have less impact on election results. This ultimately blocks that community from having meaningful representation on the highest courts. The court should see the lack of Hispanic representation as indicative of an unfair voting system.

The state isn’t sitting idly by and letting this significant constitutional change happen. Texas is using the same defense it has claimed in cases of gerrymandering: Race has nothing to do with the disparity — it’s just a partisan thing. Republicans choose whichever candidate they want to win in the primary, and that candidate has, for the past few decades, gone on to win the election.

This defense avoids answering the challenge against the voting system. In Judge Elsa Alcala’s own words, her last name is “a liability” in both primaries and elections. A highly qualified judge who has served Texas for seven years should never be discouraged from running because of her ethnicity.

A district-based election system would work similarly to our process for electing representatives to the state senate or house. Voters in different districts would select their judge to represent them at the state level. The prosecution argues this would create districts with a majority Hispanic electorate, leading to a greater possibility of equal representation on the courts.

If justices are going to be elected by voters, those elections should follow the same rules applied to all other elections. Districting would help bring the elections for the state’s highest courts into line with the rest of the electoral process.

Rigney is a government senior from Austin.