June 16, 2023

Willkie, together with the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, is representing minority residents of Galveston County, Texas in a civil rights lawsuit related to racial gerrymandering that threatens to dilute the voting power of minority residents.

Galveston, Texas is where a Union general, on June 19, 1865, informed enslaved residents that the Civil war had ended and all slaves in the state were free.  The declaration was made two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth commemorates this day.  This case is particularly significant given this connection.

As counsel to a group of plaintiffs, Willkie and co-counsel are challenging as a racial gerrymander the Commissioners Court precinct map drawn by Galveston County which eliminated the only precinct in the County in which Black and Latino residents could elect their candidate of choice.  Under this new map, Precinct 3 saw its minority residents dispersed into the other three Anglo-majority precincts.  If upheld, the new map will virtually guarantee that white voters will have majority control in all four Precincts even though the minority Black and Latino residents make up 45% of the County’s total population and previously comprised 54.7% of the population of Precinct 3.

The action, titled Dickinson Bay Area Branch NAACP, et al. v. Galveston County, et al., was filed in April 2022 and later consolidated with two other actions brought by the United States and another group of private plaintiffs.  The actions bring multiple claims under the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, alleging racial discrimination, racial gerrymandering, and voter dilution.  Over the past 15 months, Willkie and co-counsel have been vigorously prosecuting their claims in the face of stiff resistance from the County and its counsel. 

To start, Plaintiffs beat back Defendants’ motions to dismiss the actions, with the District Court rejecting all of Defendants’ arguments.  For example, the Court rejected Defendants’ claim that the lines were legal because they were drawn to prefer Republicans, rather than to disenfranchise minorities, and held that “racial discrimination need only be one purpose, and not even a primary purpose” for Plaintiffs to prevail. 

Next, Plaintiffs confronted head-on Defendants’ strategy of hiding virtually all information relating to the County’s map-drawing information behind blanket assertions of attorney-client privilege and work product protection.  The County claimed that all these deliberations should remain hidden from view because the County had hired a redistricting consultant with a law degree and a map-drawer and delegated virtually all of the redistricting work to them.  Plaintiffs moved to compel, arguing that routine legislative processes cannot be shielded in this manner, as redistricting is a quintessentially legislative process.  Before getting to the core of the issue, the Court chastised the Defendants’ approach: “It is an absolute waste of this Court’s time and precious judicial resources to sift through nearly 500 documents when a not insignificant percentage of those documents are not privileged[.]” 

In a major win—not just for our plaintiffs but for the larger voting rights movement—the Court ordered Defendants to turn over all but five of almost 500 documents improperly withheld from production.  The Opinion agreed with Plaintiffs that “Defendants’ myopic focus on compliance with redistricting laws overlooks their critical concession: that ‘the redistricting process is a constitutionally required legislative activity.”  And adopting Plaintiffs’ position, the Court stated:  “That [Defendants] chose to funnel this process through attorneys is their choice; but that choice does not require this court to transform ordinary legislative activities into attorney work product.”   

Our clients’ case has been buoyed by the recent Supreme Court decision in Allen v. Milligan, which confirmed the continued viability of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the constitutional rights of minority voters.  The Supreme Court rejected “the contention that mapmakers must be entirely ‘blind’ to race” as having  no footing in §2 case law, noting that the Court’s precedents “have authorized race-based redistricting as a remedy for state districting maps that violate §2.”  Allen v. Milligan, 599 U.S. __ (2023).

Trial is set to start on August 7 in Galveston City. 

The Willkie team includes senior counsel Richard Mancino; and associates Diana C. Vall-llobera, Michelle Polizzano, Molly Zhu, Andrew Silberstein, and Kathryn Garrett.

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