Litigation over Beaumont ISD school board elections is back post-Shelby Co.
And in its latest interation, the case illustrates not only confusion about what Shelby Co. did but why Shelby Co.’s greatest impact in the long run may be not in high-profile redistricting or major statewide issues like voter ID but at the local level, where there is often scant media attention and little money to bring voting rights challenges.
But first a little background because the story is convoluted in the way that only local politics can be.
The Beaumont ISD for more than two decades had used a 7 single-member district system for electing school board trustees.
In May 2011, however, district voters narrowly approved a citizen ballot initiative requiring that future elections be conducted under an alternate system using five single-member districts and two at-large districts. The district dutifully drew a new 5-2 map and submitted it for preclearance to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department, however, rejected the map finding that it would reduce the ability of African-Americans to elect their candidates of choice.
Following that rejection, the board went back and forth about what to do next but ultimately decided to use the old 2001 map for May 2013 election because a new 7-0 map had not yet been precleared. The district also issued an election notice, calling elections for places 4, 6, and 7. However, in keeping with the staggered system of elections, the election notice did not call for elections for places 1, 2, and 3 - the only three seats represented by African-Americans- or for place 5.
Nonetheless, in a surprise move, shortly before the filing deadline for the May 2013 election, three non-African-American candidates filed to run for places 1, 2, and 3 - despite the fact that no elections had been called for those seats. Not surprisingly, however, none of the three African-American incumbents filed since they were, not unfairly, under the impression that they were not up for re-election in 2013.
To add to the drama and intrigue, each of the three non-African-American candidates had run for the same seats in 2011 and had been defeated by the very African-American incumbents they now sought to replace.
The school district rejected the ballot applications of the would-be challengers as being invalid under the election notice - after all, no election had been called for those seats.
Shortly afterwards, however, a group of citizens filed a petition of writ of mandamus with the Ninth Court of Appeals - the state court of appeals including Beaumont. The petition contended that state law required elections for all seven seats after redistricting.
The state court granted the petition and ordered elections to be held for all seven seats, with the candidates for each seat determined by who filed by the now passed filing deadline - in other words, automatically electing the three non-African-American candidates for places 1, 2 , and 3 - since the African-American incumbents - not believing their terms to be up - had not filed for re-election.
(Trust me this is the abridged version.)
The Justice Department filed a suit in Washington to enjoin the May election on the grounds that the change to election procedures - and the refusal to re-open the filing deadline - had not been precleared, and a three-judge panel granted a temporary restraining order blocking the election. With the restraining order (and later injunction) in place, the district cancelled the May 2013 election and set about trying to obtain preclearance of its new 7-0 redistricting plan.
But, while DOJ ultimately precleared the new 7-0 plan, Shelby Co. happened.
And last week, the three non-African-American candidates filed another petition for writ of mandamus with the state court of appeals, asserting that “the Shelby County decision [had] stripped the DC Court of its Section 5 subject matter jurisdiction” and asking the court of appeals to declare them the victors in places 1, 2 & 3 without need for an election.
In its response with the court of appeals, the school district told the state court that the three-judge federal panel still had jurisdiction to order the November 2013 election for places 1, 2, & 3 as sought by the district. They also told the court that granting the relief sought by the three would-be school board members would result in violations both of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th amendments.
Meanwhile, both DOJ and the Beaumont ISD have asked the three-judge panel in Washington (here and here) to retain jurisdiction and use its equitable powers to order a November election using the new map.
It remains to be seen how all this plays out, but what the case illustrates that there can be just as much, if not more, intrigue at the local level as there can be with high-stakes affairs such as congressional redistricting. In this case, the school board was well-represented and the case had the attention of the Justice Department. But section 5 still played a critical role in allowing review. And that luxury may not be there in the future.