Beaumont ISD and the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Will Baude linked to a post by Univ. of Texas Law prof Joey Fishkin about a redistricting fight going on in Beaumont that piqued my curiosity. Prof Fishkin writes:

The Beaumont case thus provides a particularly clear case [emph added] of the effect of the demise of Section 5: under Section 5, this particular shenanigan went nowhere, blocked by the DOJ and federal courts.  But now, absent Section 5, it may well go ahead. That is part of why the news yesterday that the Department of Justice is seeking to get Texas covered again, as the central test case of Section 3(c)(the “bail-in” provision), is so important.

In the incident that prompted the Prof. Fishkin’s post, an 11th hour filing by previously defeated candidates for the Beaumont ISD forced a change in the which seats were up for a May 11 election. This was timed so that three African-American trustees who thought they weren’t up for reelection would miss the filing deadline, leaving the previous losers unopposed. The writ was granted by the 9th court of appeals, but the May election was blocked under preclearance.

This sounded pretty crazy, so I wondered if there was more to the story, and it turns out that this questionable legal gambit was in the context of a larger and very contentious power struggle over the BISD. The BISD itself provides a timeline of the legal fight. In the comments at Volokh (which uses the Disqus system that oddly doesn’t work in OSX Safari, but works in iOS Safari) a Beaumont resident added a comment that added some context. This prompted an update from Baude after I flagged it. A subsequent update from Fishkin responds to the comment.

In the second point of view expressed by Robert from Beaumont, the entrenched interests at the BISD have used DoJ preclearance to thwart efforts at reform in the Beaumont schools, including a redistricting plan that was voted on by the people of Beaumont. Some highlights of reasons to think BISD could use some reform:

In 2011, a group called BETTER got a referendum on the ballot to change the system for electing trustees. Redistricting was due in any case as the 2013 deadline for reevaluation based on the 2010 census was looming.  An alternative group, BEST, accused the BETTER crowd of being racially motivated, and this report in the Beaumont Examiner, an local paper that clearly sides with the BETTER group, indicates the contentiousness of the situation:

Mixed with the crowd of supporters for the petition drive to change the way the BISD school board is comprised were district spokesperson Jessie Haynes, who took photos and wrote the names of people involved or making donations to the group; Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education David Harris; Director of Personnel Sybil Comeaux; former BISD trustee Paul Brown; and Central math teacher William Littles, among others.

Meanwhile, BETTER supporters were sneaking hidden recorders into BEST meetings.

The May 2011 election gave mixed results for the reformers. Only one of their candidates won a seat on the board, while the three involved in the current shenanigans were defeated, despite forcing a redo of a shady drawing for ballot placement. On the other hand, the referendum to change from 7 single-member districts to 5 single-member plus 2 at-large passed by a comfortable margin.

Although Baude and Fishkin discuss the situation in the context of Shelby County v Holder, my non-lawyer mind also connects it to an underlying issue in one of the other big SCOTUS rulings from the recent term, Hollingsworth v. Perry, where the Supremes ruled that Prop 8 supporters did not have standing to challenge a court decision to overturn the California ban on gay marriage.  Here, as in Hollingsworth, the government entity charged with defending a voter initiative had little interest in mounting a vigorous defense.  Unlike Hollingsworth, the BETTER supporters didn’t even have the chance to make the argument for standing in an actual court.

The BETTER supporters believe that the BISD did not, in fact, defend the will of the people on the referendum.  Robert writes:

The school board president said that he did not have to present it because the only people who voted for it in the district wide election were the whites and hispanics. The school board attorney presented it to the DOJ but did not vigorously defend the new voting plan and they did not clear it.

After the DoJ turned down the 5/2 plan as presented, it appears that the board did not come back with an alternative 5/2 plan that would increase the number of black majority districts. Instead, a series of 7/0 plans were drawn up and submitted for preclearance. The district was still obligated to redistrict in order to remedy population disparities identified by the 2010 census. Texas election law is that when redistricting happens, all seats have to be put up for reelection unless the jurisdiction applies to exempt certain incumbents on the basis of a recent election.

You might think that in this contentious environment counsel for the BISD would make sure they were up on all of the relevant election law, but even the last plan missed a deadline to be in place for a May election. And although the BISD lawyer says she knew how the board could have used a “savings clause” to prevent the three disputed seats from being forced onto the ballot, this didn’t happen.  This just could be incompetence, but I can understand the view that the actions of the BISD are consistent with a desire to postpone a May election to allow various scandals to die down in the news.

Despite all this, I agree with Prof. Fishkin when he writes

common sense and equity require giving incumbent officeholders some sort of notice that the term for which they were elected is now being cut in half and new elections are being held for their seats.

But I’m not so sure about this:

Sandbagging the incumbents with late-afternoon-on-the-last-day filings for a not-yet-announced election is a classic local-politics shenanigan.

for the simple reason that I suspect that this kind of sandbagging is usually what incumbents do to challengers.  Prof Fishkin points to the thwarting of the sandbagging as evidence that the preclearance sections of the VRA are a good thing, and in isolation I don’t disagree, no matter how sympathetic I might be to the larger cause of the BETTER group.  But even in this case, preclearance has had multiple effects, so it seems odd to point to the good parts and ignore other consequences.  In particular, it seems to me that regardless of the specific merits of BETTER vs BEST in Beaumont, distant decisions at the DoJ can be gamed to protect corrupt incumbents from reformers as long as the incumbents are from a group covered by the VRA. I also suspect that the BISD was caught off guard not out of some general naivete, but rather from the confidence that the DoJ would have their backs.

If this is a particularly clear case, it makes me wonder what a murky one is.

All this confirms Baude’s prediction in the original post:

I suspect that the way most people see these voting changes will generally be a result of confirmation bias. Those who thought that the preclearance regime was constitutional will see these as further proof that Section 5 was needed — just look at all the “shenanigans” that covered jurisdictions get up to as soon as they have a chance, they’ll say. Those who thought the regime was unconstitutional will see them as further proof of Section 5′s dramatic invasion of state sovereignty — this just shows how big of a burden Section 5 was imposing and/or how unneeded that burden was in light of the Constitution and (maybe) Section 2, they’ll say

Going-away party fajitas and the power of enzymes

The lab tradition is that when someone leaves, they get to choose the food for the party at our house.  In the past, people have chosen burgers, paella, and lasagna among others. Yesterday, Nathan and John were leaving and the plan was fajitas, which I’ve never made despite living in Texas for more than 20 years.

I found this chicken fajitas recipe at Homesick Texan. Weirdly, it doesn’t come up when you search for “chicken fajitas” in her Google search box, which led me to wonder the other day if I had hallucinated it.  But fortunately I found it in her recipe index.

For the beef, I tried a version of the Pappasito’s recipe posted on the Food Board at Texags.  I  used that on some tenderized inner skirt from HEB, and compare it to some tenderized and seasoned flank steak from the Rosenthal Meat Store on campus. This post was supposed to be largely a recipe blog, but the beef was a fail. I was concerned about the inner skirt being pretenderized in some unspecified way combined with a pineapple-based marinade, and this turned out to be warranted, especially since I tried fresh pineapple instead of pineapple juice.  Fortunately, the Rosenthal flank steak was OK and the chicken was good.

This makes me wonder about using pineapple for teaching catalysis. Googling reveals several examples of using pineapple and jello. But I’m wondering about a way to do something more quantitative.

For the peppers and onions I used a mix of onions with green, red, and yellow peppers and some Anaheims. Cooked them in the wok.

WP PubMed Reflist

One of the reasons I started my old blog was to use it as a front end for managing our department website.  Prospective graduate students generally don’t think my friends at MIT haven’t published for the last 5 years based on their website, but people with bicoastal biases might actually believe that about Texas A&M.  Manual updates are a pain.  Faculty send you information in different formats, when they bother to respond at all.

baker pubs July 2013


When I was in charge of graduate recruiting, I also wrote some PHP scripts to automate the management of our departmental website, in an attempt to break the cycle of revision via Dreamweaver.  One of the features I was most proud of was automated updates of faculty publication lists from PubMed via NCBI’s EUtils web service.  Now that we’ve migrated to WordPress, I wrote a wordpress plugin WP PubMed Reflist to supply that functionality.  I’ve now made it available on and I was pleased to see that the updater here pulled the latest update, which adds PMC and Full Text links.

For comparison, Tania Baker’s website at as of today: vs what the plugin does:

[pmid-refs key=’taniabaker’ limit=5]

Tenure surprises

Via Jonathan (@phylogenomics) Eisen on Twitter: The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article on fear and loathing among the untenured. Overall, the content is good, common sense stuff: mentor your junior faculty, hire with the expectation of promotion, give frequent feedback, don’t discourage creative teaching by overemphasizing numerical student reviews.  What led me to want to inaugurate the new Blogs for Industry around this article is the idea that tenure decisions should not be surprises.

Glenn R. Sharfman, Manchester’s dean of academic affairs, says, “I don’t want there to ever be any surprises when someone comes up for tenure. They should know where they stand.”

The idea that there should not be surprises in any group decision-making should not just apply to promotion and tenure.  Surprises mean we have not adequately planned for reasonably foreseeable contingencies.  So I don’t want there to be surprises either, and promotion and tenure is an area where surprise reduction is a good thing.

This post is just to point out that reducing surprises is a goal, but it is not the only goal. This is because there are bad ways to reduce the surprises as well as good ways, and getting to zero at all costs tempts us to resort to some of the bad ways. The desire to remove subjectivity can unintentionally send a message to the pre-tenured faculty that there is a hard and fast checklist: I need to get X grants and pass a threshold for log2(publications x impact factor). I don’t know anyone who literally makes the decision that way, but I have seen junior faculty interpret their feedback as if that’s the hidden, secret meaning of the entirely conventional advice we give them to get funded, publish more, and promote your work at an appropriate number of conferences.  At institutions like mine, we also see versions of this problem described at the Volokh Conspiracy, where candidates ignore the explicit advice they are given based on their (probably incorrect) perception of standards at institutions higher in the usual rankings. After all, why listen to the schlubs who are actually going to vote on your promotion when you can get advice from superstars elsewhere. Dear life sciences Asst Profs everywhere:


  • You might want to notice whether the stars advising you are actually participating in promotion decisions at their own institutions.  Great scientists are not necessarily good faculty builders
  • Your unfinished manuscript in preparation for Science, Nature or Cell wouldn’t get you promoted at Harvard either.
  • If it’s not close, there’s nothing to fear.

We can and should strive to identify and suppress things like implicit bias.  But the review for promotion and tenure is necessarily subjective. Many of the attempts to remove subjectivity just outsource it, in some cases to unidentified grant panelists and journal editorial staff.