Hundreds of newly naturalized American citizens left an Aldine community center this week with huge smiles on their faces and little American flags in their hands, hugging relatives and taking pictures with certificates affirming their U.S. citizenship and all the rights it imparts.
It’s a scene that plays out regularly at naturalization ceremonies, but there was one difference this time around: The League of Women Voters wasn’t on hand to collect voter registration cards from the new citizens.
That’s because U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge kept the nonpartisan voting rights group from attending Wednesday’s ceremony at the M.O. Campbell Center, departing from decades of tradition that historically allows new citizens to register to vote right away in a simple and easy manner.
At the October naturalization ceremony, for example, 2,100 new citizens took the oath, with one Southern District judge recalling that the voting advocacy group attended as usual. The League of Women Voters has “always been there. It’s not like they’re advocating or politicking,” said the judge, who asked to be unnamed.
The chief U.S. District Judge of the region, Lee H. Rosenthal, confirmed that for the November ceremony the voting rights group was not present. She and other judges in the Southern District of Texas said they’ve included the League of Women Voters at previous ceremonies.
Judge Eskridge said in an email to the Houston Chronicle that the situation may have been a “misunderstanding.” He emphasized that having only been appointed in 2019, months before the COVID-19 outbreak suspended in-person naturalization ceremonies, he was unfamiliar with such a tradition. He said he would “certainly consider that going forward.”
“It’s an absolute honor and privilege to preside over a naturalization ceremony,” Eskridge said. “I personally admire the effort and determination that went into this big moment for each of them today and the exercise of the rights, privileges, and protections that come with citizenship.”
Eskridge’s appointment to judgeship in the Southern District of Texas by former President Donald Trump received rare bipartisan support. He was active in the conservative Federalist Society and described as an “even-keeled” litigator by colleagues at the time of his appointment.
While judges are not legally obligated to allow the League of Women Voters into naturalization ceremonies, granting their request for participation is considered a formality. The League has had volunteer registrars on hand at such ceremonies for over 20 years, according to Annie Johnson-Benifield, president of the League of Women Voters of Houston.
For a longer version of this article in the Houston Chronicle, click here.