In an opinion jointly authored by Justice Jimmy Blacklock and newly appointed Justice Evan Young, the Texas Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the 2022 election for two seats on the Harris County Commissioners Court (HCCC). Five voters filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the Court after a Harris County district court dismissed their request for injunctive relief. They allege that the redistricting map adopted by HCCC last October violated their voting rights because of partisan gerrymandering and the effect of staggering the elections in the redrawn precincts so that two commissioners would run in 2022 and the other two in 2024.
First and foremost, the opinion takes no position on the justiciability or validity of the Relators’ claims, nor on the constitutionality of HCCC’s new map. Noting the strict limitation on a court’s authority to intervene in an impending election, Justices Blacklock and Young caution anyone wishing to challenge an election dispute to bring the case promptly enough to ensure that any order of relief “would not disrupt the larger election,” which it would in this case. Moreover, a party asking for court intervention must, at minimum, “explain the practical consequences of the requested judicial action” in “sufficient detail to allow the Court to weigh the need for the requested relief against the burdens the relief would impose on the election process and on the rights of other Texans.” As Justices Blacklock and Young put it,
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 another. 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 with any such intention. We simply note that the rules are demanding because such conduct would otherwise go undeterred. Courts must follow the same, exacting standards in all cases.
Justices Blacklock and Young make it clear that the timeline in this case left no room for SCOTX to consider the case in all of its many ramifications. HCCC adopted the new map on October 28. Relators brought suit on November 19. The district court granted HCCC’s plea to the jurisdiction at a hearing on December 22. Realizing that an interlocutory appeal would give the courts no time to address the merits and grant relief, Relators filed an original petition for writ of mandamus on December 23. In this matter, Relators did not file suit until the 2022 election was already underway, as candidate filing opened on November 13. Filing closed on December 13, triggering various statutory deadlines for the preparation of ballots and mailing them to military and overseas voters. Any action by the Court at this point, the justices opined, would necessarily disrupt the process. Moreover, Relators did not specify any form of relief that might mitigate or avoid this disruption. “This is an original mandamus proceeding brought in this Court with a bare record that contains only allegations—some of which are not disputed, but many of which are,” the justices wrote. “Ordering the requested relief on the paltry record before this Court would be an irresponsible shot in the dark.”
The justices go on to recite numerous unanswered questions about the nature of relief that might be within the Court’s power to order, none of which have yet been answered in other litigation before the Court. They thus found that the lateness of the hour and the “likelihood of substantial harm that would flow from any judicial action” violated “the settled limits on judicial interference in elections.” They further pointed out that the Texas Constitution recognizes “the consequences of combining staggered elections with reapportionment every decade following the census.” Specifically, the constitution has been amended to require all state Senate districts to have an election after redistricting, though they too have staggered terms. The same provision, however, does not apply to county commissioners courts. Although the justices point out that they are not taking a position on the constitutionality of staggered elections combined with reapportionment of commissioners precincts, they do point out that one way to remedy the problem is by constitutional amendment, as was done in the case of the Texas Senate. Nevertheless, the opinion does not foreclose full-blown litigation on the issue in advance of the 2024 elections, assuming that someone wanted to pursue it.
It is very heartening to see SCOTX stake out such a strong position on the limits of judicial intervention in the election process. Justices Blacklock and Young time and again point out that elections belong to the people and that they people have the power to make whatever changes they see fit. “We each vote for a county commissioner, and we all are subject to either temporary disenfranchisement following a redistricting, or vote dilution if precincts are not allocated reasonably closely to population,” they state. “If this is a problem, Texans do not need our courts to fix it . . . The Constitution is theirs, not ours, and the People may freely adjust its contours whenever they wish, after assessing what system of elections best suits the needs of Texas.” In today’s polarized partisan environment, we applaud SCOTX’s continuing insistence on an independent judiciary that steadfastly refuses to risk its credibility by taking sides in essentially political disputes and power struggles.