Last Monday—the same day that the nation celebrated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.—Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal ordered federal oversight of the city of Pasadena’s elections system until 2023, making Pasadena an unlikely flashpoint in a national controversy surrounding a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act.
Earlier this month, Rosenthal ruled that Pasadena violated the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 113-page written opinion, she wrote that Pasadena changed its election format in a way that was “intentionally discriminating against Latinos and disproportionately diluting their voting power.” Pasadena plans to appeal Rosenthal’s decision, but last Wednesday, Rosenthal rejected the city’s request for a temporary injunction on the ruling. So, as the ruling stands, Pasadena will be required to seek pre-clearance from the federal government before making any changes to its political process for the next six years.
Much of this can be traced back to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required nine states—including Texas—to seek approval from the feds before making changes to local election laws. The argument for gutting that rule was, essentially, that the nation was no longer at risk of discriminating against the voting rights of minorities. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the 5-4 majority. Then-Texas governor Rick Perry lauded the ruling, saying the Section 4 rules were “outdated and unnecessary,” and were an “overreach of federal power.”
But Pasadena is a compelling case study for the argument against SCOTUS’s decision to defang the Voting Rights Act. Days after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling, Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell unveiled a redistricting plan to replace the city’s eight single-member districts with six single-member districts and two at-large positions, which would eliminate one of Pasadena’s predominantly Latino districts (Latinos make up 62 percent of the city’s total population of 152,000).
The proposal faced fierce opposition from Latinos (99 percent of Latino voters were against it), but the “Anglo bloc voting and turnout were sufficient to defeat the clear Latino preference,” according to Rosenthal’s decision. When asked shortly after the proposal passed why he had made the changes, Isbell said it was because “the Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do.”
Rosenthal must have suspected that there was more to that decision than flouting the Justice Department. She wrote in her ruling that the “dilutive impact on Latino power was evident and clearly understood.” The mayor’s decision to change the city’s voting rules came just as Pasadena’s Latino voter bloc seemed primed to take the majority of city council. In a series of public meetings about the redistricting, “the Mayor offered no response to repeated and vigorous objections that the 6–2 map and plan would dilute Latino voting strength, other than to claim—incorrectly—that 70% of Latinos in Pasadena were illegal aliens who could not vote,” Rosenthal wrote.
Witness testimony during the Pasadena trial revealed a city still mired in racial politics. As Rosenthal detailed in her decision, Latinos live in the north, and whites in the south, a lasting effect of restrictive housing covenants that were in place until the forties. There’s a tangible difference in basic infrastructure elements and amenities: the streets, sewage systems, and recreation areas are all superior in south Pasadena as opposed to in the north. By the eighties, Pasadena held Texas’s headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan, and the hate group even had a bookstore in the center of town.
Witness testimony, which is detailed in the decision, raises questions about Isbell’s track record on race throughout his tenure as mayor. Former city councilman Don Harrison testified that in 2008 he was part of a conversation during which Isbell told the Pasadena Police Department that if they encountered a Hispanic person driving without car insurance, they should impound the car. Harrison asked Isbell what police should do if they come across a white person without car insurance, to which Isbell apparently responded that impoundment should be up to the officer’s discretion. And when Richard Scott, Isbell’s director of community relations, was preparing a mailing list to send out campaign materials to promote the redistricting plan, he recommended that a campaign vendor use Isbell’s mailer list from a previous campaign, but asked the vendor first to “pull out Hispanic names” from the list, according to court records. (Scott later testified that by “Hispanic names” he meant Democratic voters.)
Ornaldo Ybarra, who in 2009 became the first Latino elected to Pasadena’s city council in nearly two decades, testified that while he was on the campaign trail, white residents slammed doors in his face and told him they “weren’t going to vote for a wetback.” Oscar Del Toro shared similar testimony about his experience while campaigning door-to-door in south Pasadena for one of the new at-large city council positions in 2015. In one instance, according to Del Toro’s testimony, a resident told Del Toro that Pasadena is a “good ole boy town,” and asked him to drop his campaign fliers on the porch rather than hand them to her. Despite the fact that Del Toro and his white opponent shared nearly identical policies, Del Toro garnered just 39 percent of the citywide vote and lost. Only 28 percent of Pasadena’s white voters polled for Del Toro. In her written opinion, Rosenthal found that the at-large election had been “racially polarized” by Isbell’s redistricting, and that Del Toro “lost the election as a consequence.”
Ybarra also testified that three years ago, a group of water department workers complained to him that a white city human resources employee made comments to them about “Mexicans making tacos”—the white employee was transferred, but continued to work for the city. “I have been in Pasadena for 38 years,” Ybarra testified. “The whole time I have been there, I never experienced racism or prejudice to what I have seen in my time serving on council.”
Pasadena filed an appeal on Tuesday, questioning the legitimacy of the witness testimony Rosenthal relied on to make her decision and requesting a stay on the ruling. On Wednesday, Rosenthal denied the stay, ordering the city to revert its election system back to the original districting plan before the next election in May when the mayor’s seat and all of the city council positions are up for grabs. The attention will now turn to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case will head next.