Civil Rights Advocates Argue Texas Voter ID Law is Intended to Discriminate; DOJ Switching Positions

February 27, 2017

Corpus Christi, TX – A U.S. District Court in Texas will hear arguments Tuesday to determine whether the state intentionally discriminated against minority voters when it passed its strict photo ID law in 2011. If the court finds it did, it will strike down the law, and plaintiffs will be entitled to additional relief, including the imposition of requirements on Texas to prove any new similar legislation would not discriminate.

The hearing had previously been scheduled for late-January, but was postponed on Inauguration Day at the request of the new administration. On Friday, the court denied a request from Texas and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to further delay it. Today, after five years of fighting the discriminatory purpose of the law alongside civil rights organizations, the DOJ filed to withdraw its intent claim.

The state and DOJ argued last week the hearing should be postponed because a bill introduced in the Texas Legislature would, if passed as written, amend portions of the existing strict law which courts have said multiple times discriminates against African Americans and Latinos.

Plaintiffs filed a brief opposing that motion, saying contents of the new legislation are speculative at this point, and that the bill has not yet been passed. Even if it becomes law, the bill “has no bearing on whether SB 14, enacted in 2011, was passed with unlawful discriminatory purpose.”

Plaintiffs, including the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches (Texas NAACP) and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives (MALC) challenged the law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that Texas’s strict ID requirement both has the effect of discriminating against minority voters and that the legislature passed the law with the intent to discriminate on the basis of race. Their claims were consolidated with those brought by other groups of plaintiffs, including the United States, and the case is now known as Veasey v. Abbott.

After a two-week trial in October 2014, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled that the law had a discriminatory effect in that African American and Latino voters were less likely than Anglo voters to possess the few sorts of photo IDs allowed by the law, and more likely than Anglo voters to be burdened in getting the ID. Judge Ramos also ruled that the law was passed with a discriminatory intent. 

In July 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, agreed with the effect argument, becoming the fourth court in four years to find the law racially discriminated against African American and Latino voters. It sent the intent portion of the claim back to the lower court for further review. Judge Ramos will preside over Tuesday’s hearing. 

Attorneys representing Texas NAACP and MALC include the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the national office of the NAACP, Dechert LLP, The Bledsoe Law Firm, the Law Offices of Jose Garza, the Law Office of Robert S. Notzon, and the Covich Law Firm, P.C.

“The legislative leadership knew that the demographic changes in the state were a threat to their power, and they passed a law to take care of that threat,” said Myrna PĂ©rez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “We’re glad that lawmakers are now accepting that the law has to change, but they still must be held accountable for discriminating in the first place.” 

“The way the Texas law was written makes it clear lawmakers meant to keep certain groups from the ballot box,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and an attorney with the Bledsoe Law Firm. “The arguments will make that obvious. Sadly, it appears that the Justice Department and the new administration have been infected with the desire to change the nature of the electorate even though this requires invidious racial discrimination. Judge Ramos acted wisely in moving forward to have tomorrow’s hearing, even though the Department of Justice and the State of Texas had asked for a continuance, allegedly because of the introduction of a new voter identification law in the Texas Senate.”

“There is no more fundamental American right than the right to vote. Unfortunately, this law purposefully made it harder for Latinos, African Americans, the elderly and poor Texans to access that right,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, chairman of MALC. “That is unacceptable in a democracy.”

“The Texas photo ID law was written to intentionally burden the voting rights of African American, Latino and other minority communities and restrictions like this should have no place in our democracy today,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Cities and state officials in Texas have tried multiple times to restrict some residents’ right to vote,” said Amy L. Rudd of Dechert LLP, pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and MALC. “It’s intentional, and it needs to end.”

Background

A federal court in Washington, D.C. first blocked Texas’s voter ID law in 2012 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, finding that the law would have a disproportionate negative impact on minority citizens in Texas. In June 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court (in a separate case) ruled that the formula used in the Act for specifying the states covered by Section 5 is unconstitutional. As a result, Texas is not currently required to comply with Section 5. Just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the state would implement the voter ID law.

At the September 2014 trial, the Texas NAACP and MALC, among others, presented evidence showing the state’s ID requirement would erect discriminatory barriers to voting. At trial, experts testified that 1.2 million eligible Texas voters lack a form of government-issued photo ID that would have been accepted under the new law — and minorities would be hit the hardest. For example, the court credited testimony that African-American registered voters are 305 percent more likely and Latino registered voters 195 percent more likely than white registered voters to lack photo ID that can be used to vote.

The October 2014 opinion by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos concluded the photo ID requirement violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, imposes an unconstitutional burden on the right vote, was passed by the Texas legislature with the intent to discriminate, and constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax. The judge ordered that Texas cease implementing the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the law to remain in effect for the 2014 election.

In July 2016, the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision finding the law had a racially discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The appellate court also reversed and remanded the district court’s discriminatory intent finding for further review.

Read more on the case here and here

Contact:

Rebecca Autrey

Brennan Center

646-292-8316

rebecca.autrey@nyu.edu

Jaclyn Uresti

MALC

512-236-8410

juresti@malc.org

Gary Bledsoe

Bledsoe Law Firm

512-322-9992

garybledsoe@sbcglobal.net

Daniel Covich

Covich Law Firm LLC

361-884-5400

daniel@covichlawfirm.com

Robert Notzon

Law Office of Robert Notzon

512-799-4744

robert@notzonlaw.com

Jose Garza

Law Office of Jose Garza

210-392-2856

garzpalm@aol.com

Stacie Burgess

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

202-662-8372

press@lawyerscommittee.org

Beth Huffman

Dechert LLP

215-994-6761

beth.huffman@dechert.com

 

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Flickr Image: Adam Simmons, CC by 2.0