Harris County adopts budget with focus on public safety
Harris County Commissioners Court. Photo by Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”View Fullscreenhttps://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/app/plugins/pdfjs-viewer-shortcode/pdfjs/web/viewer.php?file=https://cdn.hpm.io/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/07105427/211111.pdf&attachment_id=416819&dButton=true&pButton=true&oButton=false&sButton=true#zoom=auto&pagemode=none&_wpnonce=75db4950dc

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

The new county map – the third proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis — redrew the county’s precinct boundaries in such a way that shifted Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s Precinct 3 from western Harris County to the northern tier, and switched Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4 from the north to the west.

The result is a less conservative constituency for Cagle: his precinct now includes more territory inside the 610 Loop and less within northwest Harris County than the current Precinct 3. Crucially, the new Precinct 4 is majority-minority, with a combined non-Anglo population of more than 70%.

Cagle is up for reelection in 2022. The new map has encouraged a crowded Democratic primary field, with four candidates vying to challenge the Republican incumbent. They include former civil court judge Lesley Briones, former state Rep. Gina Calanni, former county elections official Ben Chou, and Alief ISD board president Ann Williams.

If Cagle loses, Democrats would have a 4-1 supermajority, essentially eliminating the possibility of a quorum break. Just three votes are needed for a quorum in commissioners court, but four votes are needed in order to raise taxes.

Republicans on the court did break quorum in 2019 to stop a property tax rate hike. They threatened to do so again last year before reaching a deal on another rise in taxes.

Former Republican Commissioner Steve Radack has filed a separate lawsuit, arguing that the court took up the redistricting plan in violation of the Open Meetings Act. But the high court’s ruling suggests it is unlikely to involve itself at this late stage.