Within days of the Supreme Court striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, the mayor of this working-class industrial city set in motion a contentious change to the local election system that critics said was aimed at protecting white control of the City Council in the face of rapid growth in the city’s Hispanic population. It set off a furor, which was only inflamed when at a subsequent redistricting hearing, the mayor, Johnny Isbell, brought a gun. At another meeting, he ordered police officers to remove a council member for violating a three-minute speaking limit. Asked by SCOTUSblog why he was pursuing the change, Mr. Isbell replied, “Because the Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do.” But just after the new year, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to do precisely that — making Pasadena the first municipality in the country ordered by a court to submit, against its wishes, to federal approval of its electoral system since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.
The judge, Lee H. Rosenthal of the Federal District Court in Houston, ruled on Jan. 6 that the city’s change to the election system violated the Voting Rights Act and intentionally discriminated against Latino voters. Judge Rosenthal put the city under federal oversight, requiring Pasadena officials to seek advance approval from the Justice Department before changing the City Council election map and procedures, a practice known as preclearance.
“This is a message to those jurisdictions that the fact that they no longer have to preclear their changes doesn’t mean that they can discriminate against minority voters,” said Nina Perales, the vice president for litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented eight Hispanic voters who sued the city.
An appeal by Pasadena officials is likely, and a court could stay the ruling, blocking it from taking effect while an appeal moves forward. “We’re exploring it, and there’s a reasonable chance that we’ll appeal,” said C. Robert Heath, the city’s lead lawyer in the case. “While we have great respect for the court, we disagree with its conclusion that the city acted with an intent to dilute the vote of its Hispanic citizens.”