LAST year, a federal district judge in Texas ruled that Texas' system of electing state district court judges dilutes the voting strength of minorities. The judge ruled the Texas system, first established in 1861, was not intentionally discriminatory but has the effect of being discriminatory, putting the state in unknowing violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The federal district judge's contention that elected judges are covered by the Voting Rights Act was later overturned by the federal circuit court in New Orleans. But last week the US Supreme Court agreed with the district judge, reversing the Fifth Circuit Court.
The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that if a state elects its trial judges, as Texas and seven other states do, such elections must be in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1965 and intended to end racial discrimination in voting.
"Judicial elections are not categorically excluded" from the act, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the court's majority opinion. The voting act
The court did not declare Texas' judicial election system to be in violation of the act; it simply said that any judicial elections are covered by the voting act. Therefore, if the case returns to the Fifth Circuit Court or the federal district court and is again found in violation of the act, the state's judiciary branch could find itself under federal court control.
The court's decision has the plaintiffs hoping the state will soon elect judges from single-member districts, with some district lines specially drawn to ensure a minority candidate's success.
Others are hoping the decision will move the state away from costly judicial campaigns toward judges appointed by the governor.
Dispute over lack of minority representation among the state's district judges began in 1988, when the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), representing both Hispanic and African-American plaintiffs, took the state to court. The case focused on state district judge elections in 10 of Texas' most populous counties.
LULAC alleged Texas' method of electing many judges from at-large districts prevents minority candidates from winning elections against white candidates, says Rolando Rios, lead attorney for the LULAC lawsuit.
In Bexar County, the minority population of the city of San Antonio is more than 60 percent, and Hispanics account for most of that. There are 19 judges elected on a countywide basis. At the time of the trial, five judges were Hispanic, none were black. …