Texas Supreme Court Denies Petition for Mandamus in Harris County Redistricting Lawsuit

On January 6, the Texas Supreme Court denied the petition for mandamus in the first of two lawsuits over the Harris County Ellis-3 redistricting plan. The Ellis-3 plan completely flipped Precincts 3 and 4 while altering the boundaries of both. The likely end result will be a 4-1 Democratic supermajority in the next election. A supermajority would let commissioners shift flood-bond funds around at will.

Mandamus is a judicial order commanding another court or person to perform a specific duty. In this case, Commissioners Cagle, Ramsey and their supporters requested the court to order Lina Hidalgo to stop the Ellis-3 Plan from moving forward.

File photo of Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis who is at the center of this controversy.

Central Issue At Stake

The central issue in the case was whether 1.1 million people had their voting rights denied or delayed by the Ellis-3 plan. The Texas Supreme Court recognized the inevitable problem of preserving (or minimizing disruption to) voting rights in staggered elections when redistricting.

“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. We do not prejudge the outcome.“

Basis for Denial

However, in denying the writ of mandamus, the judges cited:

  • A delay in filing the initial appeal after the District Court dismissed the suit. Filing for the election had already begun. The judges said, “Avoidable delays, in particular, may be fatal to the courts’ ability to proceed at all.”
  • The need to describe “with precision how any relief will affect that election and the larger structure of our state’s election machinery.” And “…a party who asks a court to take action that could disrupt the election calendar after the election process has begun has the duty to explain the practical consequences…”

Regarding the second point, the Justices wrote, “Relators claim to be in possession of an alternative map that lawfully redraws precincts without excluding any voter from consecutive county-commissioner elections. This map was not presented to the commissioners court, the district court, the Respondents, or this Court, and it is unclear how this map could become law.”

Justices Blacklock and Young wrote in delivering the opinion of the Texas Supreme Court that, “Expedition and precision in requesting relief help ensure that courts can never be converted, willingly or otherwise, into a partisan tool for one side or the other. Those requirements reduce the incentives for partisan adversaries to lie in wait with lawsuits that create chaos. To be clear, we do not charge Relators here with any such intention. We simply note that the rules are demanding because such conduct would otherwise go undeterred.”

Sets No Blanket Precedent

“We emphasize that our inability to address the merits of this petition on the eve of the election—because of the timing and nature-of-relief problems discussed above does not by any means establish that there is never any judicial relief that could be given,” said the ruling.

The Justices then spent several pages exploring questions about how judicial interference would affect the machinery of an election already in progress. “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.” The Justices just didn’t feel there were enough specifics in this case to let them do so.

Not a Summary Judgement

Significantly, the Texas Supreme Court said, “We deny the petition for writ of mandamus, but we do not do so lightly or summarily. Our decision implies no endorsement, affirmation, or other view of the redrawn map of precincts challenged here. Nor do we suggest that mandamus would never be an appropriate vehicle to resolve this question or ones like it. Our narrow holding is that this mandamus petition, under the circumstances we describe below, cannot go forward under settled precedents that sharply limit judicial authority to intervene in ongoing elections.”

Second Lawsuit Still Pending in Lower Court

A second lawsuit by former commissioner Steve Radack is still pending in the Harris County 190th Civil Court. That suit alleges the Ellis-3 plan should be invalidated because it was sprung on people at the last minute without sufficient public notice. The Texas Open Meetings Act demands a minimum of 72 hours notice.

But the Ellis-3 plan was posted online only minutes before the meeting in which the plan was approved. In that meeting, 94 members of the public signed up to speak. Not one of them mentioned the Ellis-3 plan. The first mention of Ellis-3 in the transcript is when commissioners started debating plans.

For the complete text of the Supreme Court ruling, click here.

For the official transcript of the meeting in which Commissioners approved the Ellis-3 Plan, click here.

It’s not clear how or if the Supreme Court of Texas ruling on the Cagle/Ramsey suit will affect any ruling in the Radack suit. Delays were a central issue in denying mandamus. And the Radack suit was filed six weeks AFTER the Cagle/Ramsey suit.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/7/22

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