Harris Co prevails in court challenge over Democratic ‘gerrymandering’
Harris County Civil Courthouse. Photo by Macie Kelly, Houston Public Media

A Harris County Judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit from Republican commissioners and voters over new county maps that favor Democrats.

Judge Dedra Davis ruled in favor of Harris County, finding that Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey and three voters did not have jurisdiction to sue.

The Republicans’ attorney, Andy Taylor, indicated that he planned to appeal the ruling.

Cagle, Ramsey and the three voters filed the lawsuit against Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and against Harris County last month. The suit alleged that the redistricting map proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, known as the Ellis 3 plan, amounts to an unconstitutional gerrymander that would deprive more than 1.1 million voters of their right to vote.

Texas election law staggers county precinct elections every two years. All county commissioners serve four-year terms, but commissioners in even-numbered precincts and those in odd-numbered precincts take place at two-year intervals.

The next election for even-numbered precincts is in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the Ellis 3 plan shifts more than 1.1 million voters from even-numbered precincts to odd-numbered precincts, depriving them of their right to vote until 2024.

“Plaintiffs submit that there is a very simple explanation for why this occurred,” the lawsuit reads. “Commissioner Ellis wanted to do whatever it would take to draw a new map that would create three…Democratic seats. Thus, the Ellis 3 Plan does just that.”

Specifically, the suit charges, it strengthens Ellis’ position in Precinct 1 and Democratic Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s position in Precinct 2, and it renders Ramsey’s Precinct 3 a more solidly Republican district at the expense of Cagle’s Precinct 4.

Ellis himself has argued that the previous precinct maps ratified in 2010 were gerrymandered by Republicans, and his map seeks to correct that by reuniting communities of interest.

The Ellis 3 plan trades much of the territory now represented by Cagle in northern Harris County with territory now represented by Ramsey in the west. The new Precinct 4 is also majority-minority, with a combined non-Anglo population of more than 70%.

The likelihood is that Cagle’s seat would flip to a Democrat in 2022, shifting the current 3-2 Democratic majority on the court to a 4-1 Democratic supermajority. That would enable Democrats, among other measures, to push through tax increases that Republicans can currently block by breaking quorum, as Cagle and then-Commissioner Steve Radack did in 2019, and which Cagle and Ramsey again threatened to do in 2021.

During the commissioners’ debate over the Ellis 3 plan, Cagle said he viewed the map as Democrats’ revenge for the 2019 quorum break.

“You’re inclined to vote for the Ellis 3 because you view that vote as a referendum to the public, in essence on taxes,” Cagle told Hidalgo. “You feel because of our disagreement on taxes that you need to move me into a precinct that I have not served, to let me face the public on that referendum of the tax issue.”

Hidalgo acknowledged that the tax issue had influenced her decision, particularly because Cagle and Ramsey had recently threatened to break quorum again to block a Democrat-proposed tax cut, forcing a deeper tax cut as well as cuts to county services.

That threat was ultimately averted, when commissioners negotiated a slightly larger tax cut than Democrats initially wanted.

“I am concerned that your party’s on a race to the bottom, to literally not be able to pay for life-saving services, when you’re rejecting a tax cut so that you can defund the hospital district by $17 million in the middle of a pandemic,” Hidalgo said. “I haven’t forgotten that.”