New trial denied in Leal-Pena election challenge

LEFT: Marisa F. Leal on Nov. 18, 2020, in Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald) RIGHT: Minerva M. Peña waves to motorists on election day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

A San Patricio County visiting judge on Wednesday denied a motion for a new trial in Marisa F. Leal’s challenge to Minerva M. Pena’s election to the Brownsville Independent School District Board of Trustees.

Leal initially won the Nov. 3, 2020 election by one vote. Pena asked for a recount and prevailed by eight votes, 16,552 to 16,544 for Leal and 10,575 for Joe A. Rodriguez. The vote was canvased, Pena was declared the winner and was sworn in Dec. 9, 2020 to her fourth term on the board.

Leal sued and the matter went to trial Jan 6-7 in 107th state District Court, with San Patricio District Judge Joshua Johnson presiding because under state law the challenge had to be heard by a judge outside the county where the challenged election took place.

Johnson ruled that 24 illegally cast votes made it impossible to determine the election’s true winner and ordered a new election for May 7, with early voting by personal appearance from April 25-May 3.

Brownsville attorney Rick Zayas is representing Pena and Gilberto Hinojosa, also of Brownsville, is representing Leal.

Zayas moved for a new trial, arguing that the illegally cast votes had to be attributed to each candidate on a percentage basis.

Hinojosa said established precedent in such cases only requires a showing that the votes were cast illegally for them to be thrown out.

Johnson said he couldn’t find a case that supported Zayas’ position and denied the motion.

The case remains on appeal.