Supreme Court won’t block new maps for Galveston County

The Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon declined to block a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that leaves in place a new map for Galveston County, Tex. A federal district judge ruled last year that the new map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits election practices that result in a denial or abridgement of the right to vote based on race. Tuesday’s unsigned order from the Supreme Court means that Galveston County can use the new map in the 2024 elections.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented, with Justice Elena Kagan writing that the 5th Circuit “went far beyond its proper authority.”

Galveston County officials adopted the map at the center of the dispute for the county’s commissioners in Nov. 2021. Under the map, the county’s lone majority-minority district became the district with the lowest percentage of Black and Latino residents.

Both the Biden administration and two groups of local civil rights leaders and civil rights groups went to federal court to challenge the map.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown ruled last year that the map was “a clear violation of § 2 of the VRA.” He wrote that the “circumstances and effect of the enacted plan were mean-spirited and egregious given that there was absolutely no reason to make major changes to” the majority-minority district. Brown ordered the county to draw a new map in time for the candidate filing period for the Nov. 2024 elections, which ran from Nov. 11 to Dec. 11, 2023.

The 5th Circuit initially upheld Brown’s decision, but the full 5th Circuit later put Brown’s orders until it can rehear the case next year.

The challengers asked the Supreme Court to step in, with one group telling the justices that a “redistricting plan that the district court characterized as ‘[a]typical,’ ‘stark,’ ‘jarring,’ ‘mean-spirited,’ and ‘stunning’ for its dismantling of a thirty-year-old majority-minority precinct cannot be allowed to cast a discriminatory pall over the 2024 election in Galveston County.”

The county countered that federal courts generally should not block state election laws shortly before an election – a doctrine known as the Purcell principle. And in particular, it added, if the 5th Circuit’s stay is lifted, it might not be able to meet deadlines for the upcoming primary elections, scheduled for Mar. 2024.

The justices turned down the challengers’ request on Tuesday afternoon. In her dissent, Kagan pushed back against the state’s invocation of the Purcell principle. “The Fifth Circuit’s stay itself disrupted the status quo—an election map concededly lawful under Circuit precedent and nearly identical to the maps that have governed the election of Galveston County’s commissioners for decades,” she wrote.

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