VELÁSQUEZ V. CITY OF ABILENE

Ann Landeros

VELÁSQUEZ V. CITY OF ABILENE. Velásquez v. City of Abilene, was one of a series of federal civil rights lawsuits that interpreted the 1982 amendments to the federal Voting Rights Act and clarified the evidentiary and procedural standards that applied to cases alleging voter discrimination by the use of at-large electoral systems to dilute minority votes. The Velásquez case asserted that under the amended statute of 1982, the plaintiff did not have the burden of proof that the electoral system was adopted with the intent to discriminate against minorities but only that the results of the system or process were discriminatory. The decision further held that a district court rejecting a claim under the 1982 act had to fully explain its reasoning by addressing all the plaintiff’s substantial evidence. Ultimately, the Velásquez line of cases helped end the widespread use of at-large voting systems in the southern United States to suppress minority representation.

In 1982 plaintiff Maria Velásquez, along with other minority voters, sued the city of Abilene, Texas, and alleged that the municipality’s at-large voting system for city council seats improperly diluted minority votes in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. 

When the Velásquez lawsuit was filed, Abilene’s city council candidates ran city-wide for seats representing one of two geographic districts—the north and south sides of the city. To win a council seat required an absolute majority of votes cast. Most of Abilene’s racial and ethnic minorities, about 19 percent of the city’s population, lived in one small geographic area. Abilene adopted an at-large electoral system in 1962, and since 1973 only three minority candidates had been elected to its city council, all with the endorsement of an Anglo-dominated “slating” group, the Citizens for Better Government (CBG). “Slating” is the “creation of a package or slate of candidates, before filing for office,” by a group of “sufficient strength to make the election merely a stamp of approval of the pre-ordained candidate” group. 

During the trial, the plaintiffs’ witnesses testified that Maria Velásquez, a minority candidate who ran for justice of the peace in 1976 and county clerk in 1978 in Abilene and who lacked a CBG endorsement, suffered continuous threats and abuses during and after her candidacy. The plaintiffs’ expert witness testified as to the discriminatory purpose and effect of Abilene’s at-large electoral system. Velásquez and the other plaintiffs sought to have the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Abilene Division, order that the Abilene municipal election system be replaced with a system that elected council members from smaller geographic districts, including a district where minorities would comprise 48.3 percent of its population. 

The district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion but also declined to grant the defendants’ request for attorney’s fees. Although the procedural rules required the district court to state all the reasons why it found the plaintiffs’ evidence insufficient, the court failed to discuss much of the plaintiffs’ significant evidence, including the evidence of harassment and discriminatory intent.   

On appeal, in 1984 the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the denial of attorney’s fees and cited the “chilling effect” such an award would have on voting rights claims. The appellate court further noted that evidence regarding the discriminatory impact of a slating organization may be relevant to a Voting Rights Act claim, even if the slating organization endorses a few minority candidates.  

Because the district court failed to discuss all the plaintiffs’ substantial evidence, the appellate court could not decide whether or not the district court order was wrong under its present standard of review. The appellate court noted that the fact-specific nature of voting rights claims make a complete discussion of the evidence particularly important. Therefore, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed part of the case but remanded it back to the district court, which was ordered to explain its reasons for rejecting all the plaintiffs’ evidence by providing “further findings of fact.” 

After a related appeal and remand, the parties settled the case in 1991, the same year that two Hispanics were elected to the Abilene city council. As of 2018 the Abilene city council members were still being elected at-large. If it did not change Abilene’s at-large municipal electoral system, the Velásquez decision did add to a body of law that undermined the use of at-large electoral systems to suppress minority representation in the southern United States and that substantially increased minority representation in elected governmental bodies. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Peyton McCrary, “Bringing Equality to Power: How the Federal Courts Transformed the Electoral Structure of Southern Politics, 1960–1990” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 5 (May 2003). F. Arturo Rosales, Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2006). Edward J. Sebold, “Note: Applying Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to Single-Member Offices.” Michigan Law Review 88 (June 1990). Velasquez v. City of Abilene, 725 F.2d, 1017 (5th Cir. 1984), OpenJurist (https://openjurist.org/725/f2d/1017/velasquez-v-city-of-abilene-texas), accessed August 24, 2018. Velasquez v. City of Abilene, 798 F.2d 151 (5th Cir. 1986), CourtListener (https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/474579/maria-velasquez-v-the-city-of-abilene-texas/), accessed August 24, 2018. 

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Handbook of Texas Online, Ann Landeros, "VELÁSQUEZ V. CITY OF ABILENE," accessed September 18, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jrv02.

Uploaded on September 11, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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