Johnson v. Waller Cnty.

Decision Date24 March 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 4:18-cv-03985
Parties Damon JOHNSON, et al., Plaintiffs, v. WALLER COUNTY, et al., Defendants
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas

Catherine Meza, DOJ-Crt, Washington, DC, Deuel Ross, Kristen A. Johnson, Leah Aden, Steven C. Lance, John S. Cusick, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., New York, NY, Julie Goodrich Harrison, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, Houston, TX, for Plaintiffs Damon Johnson, Treasure Smith.

Steven C. Lance, Leah Aden, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., New York, NY, Julie Goodrich Harrison, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, Houston, TX, for Plaintiff The Panther Party.

Elizabeth Anne Dorsey, Elton R. Mathis, Waller County Criminal District Attorney's Office, Hempstead, TX, Gunnar Peterson Seaquist, Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP, Austin, TX, for Defendants.


Charles Eskridge, United States District Judge

Plaintiffs are students and a student and alumni organization at Prairie View A&M University, which is the oldest historically Black university (and second-oldest public university) in the State of Texas. Defendants are Waller County and several of its county officials and entities.

Plaintiffs allege that Waller County allocated fewer hours of early voting during the 2018 general election cycle to PVAMU than to several other surrounding areas. They also complain that the allocated hours were set only during the second week of the early voting period, with none in the first. Plaintiffs assert that this violated their rights under the Voting Rights Act, as well as under the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Defendants moved for summary judgment after the conclusion of discovery, generally asserting that no discriminatory intent or effect underlay decisions as to early voting locations and times. That motion was denied. See Allen v. Waller County , 472 F. Supp. 3d 351 (S.D. Tex. 2020). The case then proceeded to bench trial, to which these findings of fact and conclusions of law now relate.

Waller County—or more precisely, certain persons and officials acting within it—has at times manifested racial animus and discrimination in a manner curtailing (or attempting to curtail) the voting rights of students at PVAMU. For example, in 1971, the Waller County Tax Assessor (who also served as the voting registrar) prohibited students from voting unless they or their families owned property in Waller County, which practice the United States Supreme Court ultimately curtailed. In 1992, the Waller County District Attorney indicted PVAMU students on allegations of illegal voting, with those charges dropped only upon protest by the United States Department of Justice. And in 2003, although charges were never brought, a subsequent Waller County District Attorney made statements reasonably perceived as threats to prosecute students for voter fraud, again on the basis of a putative domicile test.

Not surprisingly, this history now manifests itself in the form of heightened suspicion and vigilance by today's PVAMU students. This is unfortunate, at least in this instance. And that's because a full view of the record—including testimony by several former and current PVAMU students, several Waller County officials (including two Commissioners, the County Judge, and the Elections Administrator), and the current and a former mayor of Prairie View, along with review of a number of videotapes of Waller County Commissioners Court proceedings—actually shows what appears to be genuine respect between current and recently graduated PVAMU students and chief policymakers for Waller County and Prairie View.

Regardless, the question at hand is whether the year 2018 should be added to the above list. And the answer is, it shouldn't. The record discloses an objective and reasonable basis for decisions made in the selection of early voting locations and the allocation of hours—such as the marshaling of limited electoral resources, prior locations and hours implemented without dispute, and historical usage and voter turnout—that in no way indicate prohibited animus or discriminatory intent. And indeed, the challenged actions were taken at the specific request of (or recommendation by) persons whose views can't credibly be said to be adverse to PVAMU students on any basis.

Simply put, the areas in and around Prairie View, including PVAMU, were allocated ample hours at convenient polling places during the early voting period of the 2018 general election. Looking at the record from a number of different angles demonstrates why this is so.

The evidence doesn't establish a concern as to the quantity of hours devoted overall to the areas in and around Prairie View. This is true for at least the following reasons. First , the early voting plan and allocated hours were jointly agreed to by the local Democratic and Republican party chairs. Second , the two precincts in Waller County with the most allocated hours were majority-Black districts. Third , the hours allocated to Prairie View were less than those allocated to larger population centers, but more than those allocated to smaller population centers. Fourth , the hours allocated to Prairie View reflected an increase from those allocated during the 2016 election cycle. And fifth , no evidence suggests that long lines existed in the voting precincts serving the areas in and around Prairie View or that anyone who wanted to vote early there couldn't do so.

The evidence also doesn't establish any concern about the number of hours allocated to the Memorial Student Center for on-campus early voting. This, too, is true for a number of reasons. First , no other county of comparable size in Texas with a college campus allocates any hours to on-campus early voting. Second , the early voting hours allocated to the MSC reflected a near two-fold increase from those allocated during the 2016 election cycle. Third , on-campus hours were scheduled only during the second week of the early voting period at the request of the Democratic party chair specifically to avoid congestion and access concerns associated with PVAMU homecoming activities during the first week of that period. Fourth , the convenience of hours at the MSC far surpassed the convenience of hours at any other polling place in Waller County, with it being a campus location visited frequently by students every school day. And fifth , again, no evidence suggests that long lines existed at the MSC or that students who wanted to vote early there couldn't do so.

Nor does the evidence establish any concern as to the further hours allocated to the Prairie View area at the Waller County Community Center immediately adjacent to PVAMU. This is again true for a number of reasons. First , the WCCC is the one and only designated community center in Waller County, sitting on land within the original footprint of PVAMU as previously ceded to Waller County for the very purpose of establishing a community center. Second , the WCCC is convenient to students, it being less than a seven-minute walk from the MSC, while also having an adjacent drop-off point serviced by a free, on-campus shuttle. Third , the WCCC is itself closer to the MSC than a similar early voting site designated for the 2016 election cycle. Fourth , the hours allocated to the WCCC reflected an increase from those allocated to the similar early voting site designated during the 2016 election cycle. And fifth , local political representatives responsible to the communities in and around Prairie View—being the Mayor of Prairie View and the Waller County Commissioner—advocated for the allocation of additional hours to the WCCC to better accommodate the Black elderly population in that area.

As a matter of law, and for further reasons specified below, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have failed to prove their claims of (i) a racially discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; (ii) intentional race discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as implemented by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and 42 USC § 1983 ; (iii) intentional discrimination on the basis of age in violation of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, as implemented by 42 USC § 1983 ; and (iv) intentional discrimination against them as a specific class of Black voters in Waller County aged eighteen to twenty. Defendants are instead entitled to judgment on these claims.

While not entirely beyond the purview of these findings, it's perhaps naively optimistic in these times to commend to the parties that just a bit more open communication between them might help allay future suspicions should they arise, thus avoiding protracted and difficult litigation such as this. Regardless, it bears emphasis again in this preface that no other comparably sized county in Texas places a precinct polling place for early voting directly on, or immediately adjacent to, a college campus in the way that Waller County has for PVAMU for approximately two decades. If they are of the mind to do so, the students at PVAMU can draw considerable satisfaction from the fact that their determined pursuit for recognition of their voting rights was the likely catalyst to this singular accomplishment. But at the same time, it's a matter of great credit to Waller County. And if desired to be seen in such light by both sides, it hopefully signals a continued path for the future between these parties that allows mistakes of the past, even as they will always be remembered, to continue to recede into just that—the past.

Findings of Fact...550

1. Parties...550

2. Procedural history...551

3. Trial...551

a. Plaintiffs’ case...551
b. Defendants’ case...553
c. Site inspection...554

4. Prairie View A&M University ...556

5. Waller County government...556

6. Waller County demographics...557

7. Instances of racial discrimination in voting in Texas and...

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1 cases
  • Texas Democratic Party v. Scott
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Texas
    • July 25, 2022
    ...peg into a round election hole, this Court cannot see a racial animus cause of action. See Johnson v. Waller County , No. 4:18-CV-03985, 593 F.Supp.3d 540, 599-600 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 24, 2022) (seeing no racial animus against Black student voters based on Waller County's failure to provide pol......

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