Galveston County facing voting discrimination claims after proving plan to consolidate JP districts

The county wants to combine JP districts, citing lack of cases to keep all courts open. But opponents say there's more to the story
January 14, 2014 4:26:05 PM PST
Could Galveston County cutbacks be cutting out minority voters? It's a redistricting dispute being battled out in federal court.

Galveston County is growing, nearly 20 percent in the last 10 years. Most of the growth has been in minority populations. But this week in federal court, African American elected officials say their jobs are being cut.

Penny Pope is a justice of the peace in Galveston County. She's presided over JP precinct two for years. It's a small courtroom and one of nine spread out across Galveston County.

"I have work to do. I may not have enough work, but I have work," she said.

Her precinct is in one of the still-struggling sections of Galveston island; 64 percent of voters there are minorities. Under a plan county commissioners approved, Galveston will get rid of some JP courts, going from eight JP districts to four. In the process, Pope's district will be combined with another. They are the two highest minority precincts.

"This is one of the strongest cases of intentional voting discrimination I've seen," attorney Chad Dunn said.

Dunn is fighting the case in federal court for Pope and four other elected officials fighting for a job under the new plan.

"I think there are certain members of Commissioners Court who came into office determined to make sure certain voters of Galveston County didn't have a say," he said.

This week, Dunn is trying to convince a federal judge that the maps were drawn to keep minority voters packed in a single district.

This is far from the first time Galveston County faced these claims when they redraw the maps. Two years ago, the Department of Justice said they couldn't do it, but since then, the Supreme Court's changed the rules.

Before the Supreme Court decision last summer, Galveston needed federal permission to change boundaries, and in 2011, commissioners couldn't get it.

Eight weeks after the Supreme Court changed the rules, the new plan was approved, the suing JPs say, without a single public hearing.

"Galveston followed the law," Galveston County attorney Joe Nixon said.

The county says minority representation will stay the same. This they say is a money saver.

Statistics show there may be some room for consolidation in Galveston County's JP courts. Last year, each of the nine Galveston County justices of the peace disposed of an average of 2,900 cases. Some more, some far less. Harris County JPs did 10 times that amount.

"All of the JPs work part time. The busiest JP works two days a week. The savings to Galveston and equalization of caseload is their main focus," Nixon said.

We should note that the redistricting is likely to cut some jobs for Anglo elected officials as well. They are not suing.

The trial is expected to wrap up by the end of the week.

Find Ted on Facebook at ABC13TedOberg or on Twitter at @tedoberg


Load Comments