Appeals court calls Texas voter ID law discriminatory, orders changes- Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON -- Texas’ voter identification law violates federal laws prohibiting electoral discrimination and must be amended before the November election, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the heart of the 2011 state law, widely viewed as one of the nation’s strictest requirements, ruling that it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The 9-6 decision does not nullify the entirety of the law, so voters will still need to show identification at the polls in November. But a lower court will need to create some form of interim relief until it can develop a more comprehensive solution for those who face obstacles to obtaining an ID.
"The record shows that drafters and proponents of SB 14 were aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities, and that they nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact," Judge Catharina Haynes wrote for the majority in the ruling.
Although the court found some of the arguments made in previous court cases to be legitimate, "there remains evidence to support a finding that the cloak of ballot integrity could be hiding a more invidious purpose,” Haynes wrote.
Critics, including voting rights groups and many of the state's most prominent Democrats, have long contended that the law had discriminatory effects against Hispanic and African-American voters and have been challenging it since its passage.
The lead plaintiff, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, was a Texas state representative when he filed the lawsuit against Texas Senate Bill 14 in 2011.
"Today Texas voters' fair access to the ballot box is restored," he said in a prepared statement. "After careful and thorough deliberation, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled on the right side of history. They found what many of us already knew to be true: Texas' restrictive photo voter ID law discriminates against minority voters and disenfranchises eligible American voters."
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch also released a statement lauding the decision.
"The decision affirms our position that Texas's highly restrictive voter ID law abridges the right to vote on account of race or color and orders appropriate relief before yet another election passes," the statement read.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, on the other hand, said the court had "wrongly concluded" that the law had a discriminatory effect.
"Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the election process," Abbott said in a written statement. "As attorney general I prosecuted cases against voter fraud across the state, and Texas will continue to make sure there is no illegal voting at the ballot box."
The 5th Circuit Court agreed to rehear the case en banc -- meaning in front of the full court -- in March, adding another chapter to the law's convoluted journey through the federal court system since it was signed into law in 2011.
Texas Senate Bill 14 required most citizens to show one of a handful of forms of allowable photo identification before their election ballots can be counted: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo.
Texas can appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The 5th Circuit’s most conservative members offered a stern rebuke to the decision in dissenting opinions, opening up the possibility that Texas could seek a stay on the emergency interim relief.
Of particular concern to the court's dissenters was the argument that the Texas Legislature intentionally acted with racial discrimination in mind when passing the law.
"By keeping this latter claim alive, the majority fans the flames of perniciously irresponsible racial name-calling," Judge Edith Jones wrote.
But with Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, Texas is likely to receive only four votes from Supreme Court justices to reverse the 5th Circuit’s decision. If the court deadlocks, the 5th Circuit’s en banc decision holds.
One legal expert said he doubts the 5th Circuit would be interested in addressing the matter further, as long as a lower court devises an amenable solution.
"I think this 5th Circuit ruling suggests that if the district court basically does what the 5th Circuit is asking and comes up with some way around the photo ID laws, short of striking down the whole law, I don't think the 5th Circuit is going to be at all inclined to interfere with that," said University of Texas law professor Joseph Fishkin. "I don't think the 5th Circuit has any interest in coming back between now and November."
Other Texans had divergent responses to the ruling.
"Texas Republicans' discriminatory voter ID law has held some 700,000 Texans away from their right to vote for many elections now," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, that damage by Republicans has already been done to our families. However, we can now look forward to a fairer election system, worthy of our great state. This is a huge win for voting rights in Texas and across our nation."
Attorney General Ken Paxton said the law was intended to ensure the integrity of the democratic process.
"Preventing voter fraud is essential to accurately reflecting the will of Texas voters during elections, and it is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety," he said.
Although passed in 2011, the Legislature's rules did not take effect until 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder that states with a history of racial discrimination no longer needed to seek federal approval when changing election laws.
After a district court judge ordered the Texas law halted in advance of the November 2014 election, a 5th Circuit panel stayed that ruling, arguing that it came too close to the election.
Staff writer Bobby Blanchard contributed to this report.