- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Lawyers for Texas return to court Tuesday to try to save the state’s voter ID law, and there is more at stake beyond requiring photo identification at the polls.
Republicans in the Legislature stand accused of blatant racism in enacting the 2011 law, and unless that finding by a federal judge is reversed, Texas could be forced to get federal approval for changes to its election laws based on its history of voter discrimination.
The next step in the long-fought case takes place Tuesday morning with oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
That court has already determined that the voter ID law discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters. Now the federal appeals court will determine whether that discrimination was intentional — part of a Republican plan to help GOP candidates by disenfranchising minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats.
Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will argue that the law known as Senate Bill 14 was not discriminatory and if it did adversely affect minority voters, that result was not intentional.
More to the point, state lawyers will contend that changes the Legislature adopted earlier this year corrected any alleged problems with the 2011 voter ID law, requiring that the legal challenge be dismissed and the new law be enforced without court interference.
Justice Department reversal
Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice made the same argument to the court — continuing a change of heart at the agency, which, under Republican President Donald Trump, reversed its opposition to the Texas law under Democrat Barack Obama.
“SB 14 was intended to be one piece of a considered response to a decade-long and nationwide push to improve election integrity and increase public confidence in elections,” Paxton’s lawyers told the appeals court in pre-argument briefs. “It was not the product of invidious intent.”
Lawyers for minority voters, civil rights groups and Democratic politicians who challenged the law sharply disagreed, urging the appeals court to endorse two rulings by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi:
• In April, Ramos ruled that Republican legislators acted to intentionally suppress voting by minority Texans by requiring registered voters to show one of seven forms of government-issued photo IDs that were less likely to be owned by Hispanics and African-Americans.
• In August, Ramos struck down the voter ID law passed in 2011 as well as the revised law passed this year. Although the revision allowed voters to present a wider array of identification, the judge said there was no way to retroactively fix a law that was intended to be discriminatory.
The 5th Circuit Court, however, temporarily blocked Ramos’ ruling from taking effect while Paxton’s appeal continues.
Paxton’s appeal also stopped the closing stage of the case in Ramos’ court — a ruling on whether the finding of intentional discrimination required Texas to seek federal approval for future changes to its election laws or practices.
That inquiry was still in its early stages when it was halted by the 5th Circuit Court while it considered the Texas appeal. Depending on how the court rules in the coming weeks, the inquiry could resume or be canceled.
Lawyers for those challenging the law plan to argue that Ramos got it right when she dismissed Republican arguments that the law was needed to combat voting fraud.
Noting that there were only two voting fraud convictions in the 10 years before the voter ID law was passed, Ramos said the argument was a “pretext” to discriminate by requiring photo IDs “that blacks and Latinos were least likely to possess,” the challengers told the appeals court in pre-argument briefs.
Ramos also listed a number of actions taken by Republicans to support her conclusion that they knowingly discriminated against minority voters, including “procedural tactics” used to rush the bill to then-Gov. Rick Perry’s desk “without the usual committee analysis, debate and substantive consideration of amendments.”
In a tight budget year, the voter ID bill was allowed to move forward without the typically required fiscal impact statement to avoid acknowledging its $2 million cost, the judge added.
And despite warnings of the bill’s impact on minority voters, Republicans with little or no explanation voted to reject amendments to soften the law, including efforts to allow additional photo IDs, easier voter registration or more voter education, Ramos wrote.
The efforts — when combined with the “draconian” terms of the bill and the lack of substance to Republican justifications for its need — revealed a pattern of racially motivated conduct to suppress minority voting, the judge concluded.
Paxton disputed Ramos’ conclusion, arguing that the Legislature relied on multiple studies and experiences with voter ID laws in other states to conclude that SB 14 would not improperly affect minority voters.
“The Legislature had good reason to believe that it would not prevent any person from voting,” he told the appeals court.
Paxton also said SB 14 was passed after falling short in the previous three sessions during debates that produced “more than 4,500 transcript pages of open debate and hundreds of pages of exhibits and written testimony.” Before final passage in 2011, the bill was debated for 17 hours in the Senate, seven hours in a House committee and an entire day in the House, he noted.
“The district court’s conclusion that SB 14 was enacted with ‘unnatural speed’ is clearly wrong,” he said.