The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County's recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.
In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.
But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.
"(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”
The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.
The new county map – the third proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis — redrew the county’s precinct boundaries in such a way that shifted Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s Precinct 3 from western Harris County to the northern tier, and switched Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4 from the north to the west.
The result is a less conservative constituency for Cagle: his precinct now includes more territory inside the 610 Loop and less within northwest Harris County than the current Precinct 3. Crucially, the new Precinct 4 is majority-minority, with a combined non-Anglo population of more than 70%.
Cagle is up for reelection in 2022. The new map has encouraged a crowded Democratic primary field, with four candidates vying to challenge the Republican incumbent. They include former civil court judge Lesley Briones, former state Rep. Gina Calanni, former county elections official Ben Chou, and Alief ISD board president Ann Williams.
If Cagle loses, Democrats would have a 4-1 supermajority, essentially eliminating the possibility of a quorum break. Just three votes are needed for a quorum in commissioners court, but four votes are needed in order to raise taxes.
Republicans on the court did break quorum in 2019 to stop a property tax rate hike. They threatened to do so again last year before reaching a deal on another rise in taxes.
Former Republican Commissioner Steve Radack has filed a separate lawsuit, arguing that the court took up the redistricting plan in violation of the Open Meetings Act. But the high court's ruling suggests it is unlikely to involve itself at this late stage.
County commissioner elections for even numbered and odd numbered districts are staggered every two years under Texas election law. In their lawsuit, Cagle, Ramsey, and three Republican voters charged that the Ellis map would disenfranchise 1.1 million voters who would not be able to vote in the upcoming election.
Ellis responded that his map was designed to correct a previous gerrymander by the then-Republican-led commissioners court, which he said effectively discriminated against minority voters.
“I'm grateful the Texas Supreme Court took a careful look at this case and reached the just decision,” read a statement from Ellis. “Looking forward to proceeding with an orderly election that ensures the people of Harris County have the opportunity to elect representation that reflects their values.”
Both Cagle and Ramsey's office's deferred to their attorney, Andy Taylor, for an official statement.
In a statement, Taylor said the legal battle would continue to invalidate the map for future elections.
“Because the candidate filing period commenced on November 13, 2021, which was only a mere two weeks after the unconstitutional redistricting plan was passed by the Democratic majority on the Harris County Commissioners Court, the Court refused to intervene at this time simply because the upcoming March primary election was already in progress and it would be disruptive to do so,” he said. “Once the primary election is over, we expect the Court to give our case a second look.”