Court declines to speed Texas voter ID challenge as elections loom

A federal appeals court Tuesday declined to have all 14 judges participate in the appeal over the Texas voter ID law — a decision that will keep the issue unresolved heading into the 2018 elections, one judge said.

Civil rights groups and minority voters who challenged the voter ID law as discriminatory had asked for the entire court to hear the appeal as a way to speed the case toward resolution.

The 10-4 ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, means the appeal will be heard by the customary three-judge panel.

Writing in dissent, Justice Jerry Smith noted that the losing side will likely ask the entire court to weigh in for what is known as “en banc” consideration — a path the 5th Circuit Court took at an earlier stage of the case that, if taken again, would make it “impossible for a decision to be issued before some, if not all, of the 2018 elections are history,” he said.

“The lopsided vote to deny en banc hearing shows that the court has little appetite for disposing of this important case in advance of the beginning of the 2018 election cycle,” Smith wrote.

“The elephant in the room is Texas’s 2018 election schedule, which includes statewide primaries on March 6 (with early voting beginning February 20), municipal elections May 5 (early voting April 22), primary runoffs May 22 (early voting May 14), and the general election November 6 (early voting October 22),” Smith wrote.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and President Donald Trump’s Justice Department opposed en banc review.

Paxton filed the appeal after U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos tossed out the state’s voter ID law in August, saying changes adopted by the Legislature in May did not fix a law that was drafted to discriminate against minority voters.

Under the recently passed Senate Bill 5, a registered voter who lacks a required photo ID can cast a ballot after showing documents that list a name and address, including a voter registration certificate, utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.

Such voters would have to sign a “declaration of reasonable impediment” stating that they couldn’t acquire a photo ID due to a lack of transportation, lack of a birth certificate, work schedule, disability, illness, family responsibility, or lost or stolen ID.

Ramos acknowledged that SB 5 was an improvement because voters could present additional forms of ID, but the judge also wrote that the change “does not eliminate the discrimination” that continues to impose undue burdens on Latino and African-American voters, who tend to favor Democrats.

“Elimination of (the law) ‘root and branch’ is required, as the law has no legitimacy,” Ramos concluded.

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