Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

Weil Gotshal’s Quick Action In Two Civil Rights Lawsuits in Texas Restores Voting Rights for Students at Historically Black College

(May 11, 2004, Weil Gotshal News)

Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP represented the Prairie View, Texas, student chapter of the NAACP and individual students from Prairie View A&M University, an historically black college whose student body is 90 percent African American, in two back-to-back civil rights lawsuits impacting the voting rights of the university students of this small Texas town 45 miles northwest of Houston. The litigation brought to a halt attempts by local officials to prevent students from exercising their constitutional right to vote in a county with a decades-old legacy of voter intimidation of minority residents. As a result of our legal action, the students not only were able to vote in the March 2004 primary election without threat of prosecution, but also had the opportunity to participate in additional days of early voting. Weil Gotshal represented these clients pro bono, joined by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as co-counsel and the NAACP, the ACLU and People For the American Way Foundation as of counsel.

Both cases were investigated, filed and settled successfully within six weeks.

The first case exploded onto the scene when the district attorney of Waller County (where the university is situated) threatened to prosecute for “illegal voting,” a felony, any student who used his or her school address to register to vote - basing his assertion on the incorrect belief college students do not have residency where they live during the school year. The district attorney sparked the controversy by writing a letter in November 2004 to the Waller County election administrator, later published in the Waller Times newspaper, threatening to prosecute persons who failed to meet his definition of having a legal voting address. He was accused of having racial and political motives, and the uproar that ensued was immediate, widespread and sustained. Prairie View students marched and demanded the same voter registration treatment as students in predominately white universities in Texas. Public officials and civil rights leaders protested. The Texas Secretary of State publicly disagreed with the county district attorney. The Texas Attorney General said college students could not be targeted for discriminatory residency requirements. And the US Justice Department warned the county to abide by a 1978 court order allowing Prairie View students to register.

The Monday following the student march, Weil Gotshal and co-counsel met to discuss filing a lawsuit in federal court seeking to enjoin the district attorney’s illegal threats against Prairie View students who desired to register and vote. The suit alleged violations of the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. Soon after it was filed, Weil Gotshal and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law successfully negotiated a settlement that included a consent decree signed by the district attorney reaffirming the right of Prairie View A&M University students to vote in Waller County and a public apology from the district attorney in which he encouraged the students to vote.

Weil Gotshal fashioned two additional elements into the settlement in order to help improve race relations in Waller County: an internship for a Prairie View student each semester in the district attorney’s office and a liaison to facilitate communications between the university and the district attorney’s office.

But just as the first case was being resolved, Prairie View students’ right to vote came under assault a second time, when the county drastically cut the number of hours for early voting in Prairie View for the upcoming primary by nearly two-thirds, from 17 hours to 6 hours - even though other polling places in the county kept the longer hours. Early voting was especially important because students would be on spring break during the March 9, 2004, primary election. Critics found the county’s decision to limit early voting particularly objectionable given the county election administrator’s acknowledgement that the cost for the extended voting period amounted to only $196.

Students expressed their concern to Weil Gotshal and co-counsel that the county’s action would significantly impede turnout in the election. Within a few days, we filed a suit alleging that the reduction of early voting days and hours violated the Voting Rights Act because it had not received pre-clearance from the US Department of Justice, which would have been required given Waller County’s history of voting rights violations. The filing of the suit caused Waller County officials to reverse their decision and restore the voting privileges they had taken away.

Weil Gotshal was joined by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in this lawsuit.

In a post-script to the second case some observers might call “poetic justice,” two Prairie View A&M University graduate students won closely contested primary elections, victories that were likely attributable to the second day of early voting in Prairie View that was obtained as a result of our having filed the second lawsuit.

Weil Gotshal Team

John B. Strasburger (Litigation/Regulatory, Houston)

Gregg. J. Costa (Litigation/Regulatory, Houston); Christopher M. Lopez (Business Finance & Restructuring, Houston)
Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

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