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Fate Of Pasadena Voting Rights Case Now In Federal Judge’s Hands

The lawsuit is the first of its kind against a local government since the Supreme Court in 2013 overturned part of the Voting Rights Act. It’s likely to be several weeks before the judge issues a verdict in the bench trial.



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Attorneys at Houston's federal courthouse delivered closing arguments Friday in a lawsuit charging the City of Pasadena with discriminating against Latino voters. It's the first such lawsuit against a local government since the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act three years ago.

Attorneys from the civil rights organization MALDEF are representing the plaintiffs. In their closing statement, they argued that Mayor Johnny Isbell deliberately sought to weaken Latino voting strength.

Up to 2013, Pasadena's eight city council members were all elected to represent single-member districts. Latino-backed candidates held four of the eight seats and seemed close to winning a fifth. But one month after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, Isbell proposed changing the council's structure to a mix of six single-member district seats and two at-large seats.

The plaintiffs charged that Isbell then forced a ballot measure through the city's council, over the objections of its Latino-backed members. Voters approved the measure, in an election that broke largely on racial lines.

Plaintiffs' attorneys accused the mayor of using city funds and resources to mobilize Anglo voters on Pasadena's south side to support the ballot measure. The result, the plaintiffs said, is that in 2015 Latinos lost–by a handful of votes–a council seat they'd previously been favored to win.

Attorneys for Pasadena countered that the new districts preserved Latinos' existing strength: Their candidates held four seats on the city council under the old system, and that's how many they won in the first election under the new system. He attorneys also argued that Hispanic voting strength is only expected to grow in coming years along with the city's Latino population.

It's likely to be several weeks before Judge Lee Rosenthal issues a verdict in the bench trial.

But there is a hard deadline coming up: Pasadena's next city council election is in May. The judge plans to rule before the February deadline for candidates to file.

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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