The Justice Department is preparing to drop a crucial objection to Texas’ strict voter-identification law.
The Republican-led Texas Legislature passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country in 2011. It requires voters to show a driver’s license, passport or other government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot.
The Obama Justice Department sued Texas to block the law in 2013. A federal appeals court ruled that the law needed to be softened because it discriminated against minority voters who lacked the required IDs.
As reported in the New York Times: Opponents of the law said this law was most advantageous for Republican-leaning white voters. For example, it included licenses to carry concealed handguns, which are predominantly carried by white voters, and excluded government employee IDs and public university IDs, which are more likely to be used by blacks, Hispanics and younger voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General, wants to drop the claim that Texas enacted the law with a discriminatory intent.
“This is a complete 180-degree turn,” said Danielle Lang, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that sued Texas and a fellow plantiff in the case. Under the Obama administration, she added, the Justice Department was “fully committed to the case.”
“They were full partners,” Ms. Lang said. “This was their case as much as ours.” The move came before a federal judge in Corpus Christi was scheduled to hear arguments on the discriminatory-intent issue on Tuesday.
The case will proceed, because the numerous parties that sued Texas — including voters, elected officials, civil rights organizations and black and Hispanic advocacy groups — will continue the lawsuit. The Justice Department remains a party in the case but will most likely play a smaller role.
“We stay the course,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is part of the legal team representing the Texas branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
But the reversal by the Justice Department — after a team of lawyers in the agency’s Civil Rights Division has spent more than three years and more than $1 million on the case — angered Texas Democrats and advocates for voting rights.
The Justice Department’s involvement in Texas’ voter ID law predates the lawsuit it filed against the state in 2013. The agency has been formally reviewing the law for nearly six years, starting in 2011, and made its first official objection to aspects of it in March 2012.
“I am appalled and disgusted that D.O.J. would abandon their claims, that they have advocated for years, that Texas’ photo ID law was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose,” said J. Gerald Hebert, a lawyer who represents several of those who sued Texas, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and Marc Veasey, a Democratic Texas congressman who is African-American. “The facts on which they based those claims have not changed one bit. The only facts that have changed are Trump’s election and Jeff Sessions’s appointment as Attorney General.”
Officials from the Justice Department and the Texas attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case.
In July, the most conservative federal appeals court in the country — the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans — found that the law had a discriminatory effect on minority voters and set in motion a loosening of the ID rules for the November elections. The Justice Department would continue to work with Texas on sorting out how the ID rules could be changed in future elections, but it would back away from a crucial part of the case that is far more significant for Texas.
The judge in Corpus Christi — Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, who oversaw a trial on the voter ID case in 2014 — is weighing the evidence on whether Texas enacted the law with a racially discriminatory intent.
If the judge finds discriminatory intent, Texas could be forced to seek federal approval before it makes any changes to its voting laws or procedures. For decades, Texas and several other mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination had been required to seek advance federal approval before making changes to its voting laws. But Texas and the other states were freed from that requirement in 2013, after a Supreme Court decision that invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. A finding of intentional discrimination, however, could once again put Texas under federal supervision, making it the first state brought back into so-called preclearance since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling.
Judge Ramos previously ruled that the law was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, but after Texas appealed her decision, the Fifth Circuit instructed her to review the issue once more. The Fifth Circuit found that Judge Ramos relied too heavily on Texas’ history of enacting discriminatory voting measures and made other legal errors, and asked her to reconsider the question of discriminatory intent, noting that “there remains evidence to support a finding that the cloak of ballot integrity could be hiding a more invidious purpose.”
The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, as well as his predecessor, Greg Abbott, who is now governor, have denied the law discriminates against minority voters, arguing that it was aimed at preventing voter fraud and disputing the estimated number of registered voters who lack the required IDs. Based on testimony and data presented at the 2014 trial, Judge Ramos found that about 608,000 registered voters in Texas lack the necessary types of ID required by the law, and that a disproportionate number of them were black or Hispanic.
Now that Trump is in charge, the DOJ and Texas have acted more like allies than adversaries. The Trump DOJ has twice asked the judge to delay the case and took stances that state of Texas supported, but the other plantiffs opposed.
Trump has claimed without evidence that voter fraud is widespread and that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton. This argument is helpful in supporting the claims made by the state of Texas, and disadvantageous to minority voters.
Ironically, Jeff Sessions most controversial case when he was the United States attorney in West Alabama in the 1980s was his unsuccessful prosecution of three black civil-rights activists accused of voter fraud. This ultimately led to the Senate not confirming his nomination to the Federal bench in the 1990s, and the subject of the now-famous Coretta Scott King letter, which Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read earlier this month during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing for Attorney General, resulting in her being sanctioned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.