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Petteway vs. Galveston County (Amicus Brief)

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear a case that asks it to overturn decades of precedent and significantly scale back Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by foreclosing claims by multiracial coalitions of minority voters. Galveston County, Texas, filed this appeal after Black and Latino voters successfully challenged the county’s new electoral district map. The Brennan Center and partners Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP filed an amicus brief supporting plaintiff-appellees.

Last Updated: March 4, 2024
Published: March 4, 2024

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act plays an indispensable role in protecting communities of color against racial discrimination in the electoral process by providing minority voters a legal claim to fight back in court against systemic exclusion. It is a critical safeguard against election policies and district maps that minimize or cancel out the political influence of fast-growing racial minorities. Now, in a case out of Galveston County, Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether to significantly limit the reach of Section 2 by categorically prohibiting minority voters of different racial backgrounds, such as the Black and Latino plaintiffs in that case, from jointly challenging discrimination that impacts more than one racial group.

Galveston County has a long history of discriminatory redistricting. On two separate occasions, in 1992 and 2012, the Department of Justice used its preclearance powers under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to stop Galveston County from implementing maps that diminished the ability of minority voters to elect preferred candidates. As a result, since 1992, Black and Latino voters have been able to secure representation on the county commission through a majority-minority district secured by the Voting Rights Act.

But the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted Section 5 and, for the first time in decades, Galveston County was no longer subject to preclearance. Without the antidiscrimination check, the county used the 2021 redistricting process to dismantle the long-standing majority minority district. Under the plan, the county scattered Black and Latino voters across all five districts, all of which now have white majorities that systemically vote against minority-preferred candidates. Despite minorities constituting roughly one third of the county’s eligible-to-vote population, the districts effectively shut out Black and Latino voters from representation in county government. Accordingly, Black and Latino voters, local civil rights groups, and the Department of Justice filed suit soon after this map was adopted.

The plaintiffs argued that the new district map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and alleged that it was adopted with discriminatory intent. In October 2023, a federal trial court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, finding that the new district plan violated Section 2 for the “stark” and “egregious” extent it denied Black and Latino voters equal voting rights. On appeal, a panel of three Fifth Circuit judges upheld the ruling but urged the circuit as a whole to revisit its precedent interpreting Section 2 that allowed Black and Latino voters to sue Galveston County in a single claim. A majority of Fifth Circuit judges agreed, and the issue will be heard en banc.

On February 21, 2024, the Brennan Center, in partnership with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiff-appellees ahead of the en banc hearing.

The brief argues that the text, legislative history, and purpose of Section 2 all support claims by minority voters who suffer common racial discrimination, even if they do not share a common racial identity. When Congress amended Section 2 in 1982, it used expansive language to give claims to anyone who has been denied equal rights on the basis of race, not a specific racial identity. In fact, Congress codified a framework from a 1970s Supreme Court case that involved claims by Black and Latino voters challenging electoral districts in Texas.

And for good reason — such an interpretation is necessary to address discrimination in its various manifestations. The United States has a long legacy of official policies that, de jure, distinguished the rights and opportunities available to white people on one hand and nonwhite individuals (regardless of specific identity) on the other. Over the course of history, these crude distinctions denied minorities equality not just in voting but also citizenship, schooling, housing, employment, and even marriage.

The brief also argues that the Section 2 framework which federal courts have used for decades applies equally well whether a claim is brought on behalf of a mono- or multiracial group of voters. Its rigor and fact-intensive nature means courts can distinguish between cases that have merit where voters of different backgrounds have suffered common discrimination and ones where that cannot be proven.

The Fifth Circuit will hear oral argument on May 13, 2024.

Case Documents

Three-Judge Panel

En Banc Petition


En Banc Hearing