The lawsuit filed against Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo (D) by several voters and Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey (Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (Pct. 4), alleged that the “Ellis 3” map would violate the voting rights of more than one million residents since it effectively swapped most of Precinct 3 with most of Precinct 4. Under the swap of precincts, plaintiffs argued that significant numbers of residents would have a six-year rather than a four-year gap in voting for a commissioner.
In an opinion written by Justice James Blacklock, the court rejected the plaintiff’s request not on the merits of the case, but because of the timing of the challenge so close to the 2022 primary elections.
“For a court to resolve an election dispute, the court must receive the case early enough to order relief that would not disrupt the larger election.”
Plaintiffs had filed the case on November 17, 2021, but on December 22, state district court Judge Dedra Davis granted Hidalgo’s request for a dismissal. On the following day, plaintiffs filed a writ of mandamus with SCOTX.
Blacklock wrote that blocking the Ellis 3 map would leave only the pre-existing map, which would violate federal law because uneven population growth left too much disparity in the size of each of the county’s four precincts. Plaintiffs had created an alternate map they said would maintain four-year voting schedules but were not able to present it to the court since there had not been a hearing.
Additionally, Blacklock wrote that the primary election had effectively been underway since the candidate filing period ended December 13, and officials were already preparing to send mail ballots. Consequently, the court would have to determine solutions for multiple issues created by discarding the approved map, including how any alternative map might be created, whether a new candidate filing period would be needed, and whether commissioners’ primary elections would be delayed and then held separately from other primaries.
“Both because of where we are in the electoral calendar and because of the likelihood of substantial harm that would flow from any judicial action, the relief that Relators seek transgresses this Court’s settled limits on judicial interference with elections.”
However, the opinion does suggest there may yet be an opportunity to examine the merits of the case in the future.
“To be abundantly clear, by denying the petition today, we do not dispute that the constitutional issue Relators raise is a serious question that warrants this Court’s full consideration when properly presented,” wrote Blacklock.
Noting that the new map will stand for the rest of the decade, Blacklock suggests the courts could later find the map is unconstitutional with possible remedies being “an election for all four precincts in 2024.”
The SCOTX opinion released this week does not address the lower court’s dismissal of the case, based on a “plea to the jurisdiction,” so a possible next step for the plaintiffs could be to file an appeal of the dismissal in the hopes that the full case could be heard at a later date.
“The ultimate plan is to pursue the fact that there has been a constitutional denial of 1.1 million people who are being delayed the right to vote for two years,” Cagle told The Texan.
Earlier in the week former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack filed another lawsuit against Hidalgo over the new maps in a different state district court. The Radack suit takes a different tack in alleging that the commissioners court violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Although Harris County had properly notified the public 72 hours prior to the meeting at which they adopted the Ellis 3 map, the map itself had not been made available to the public or other elected commissioners until the actual meeting at which it was approved on October 28.
“For the last three years, these three Democratic members of the court have played ‘loosey goosey’ with the Open Meetings Act and it’s going to catch up with them this time,” Radack told Houston’s ABC13.
Radack is also seeking a temporary injunction against implementation and for the court to void the passage of the Ellis map, but the SCOTX ruling Thursday indicates the court will be reluctant to intervene this close to a primary election.
“We may have to run at least one election under unfair maps,” said Cagle. “But it is important that we have fair and constitutional maps for the remainder of the decade.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.