Federal Court Finds That Texas Voter ID Law Is Intentionally Discriminatory
In the latest development in litigation that has lasted nearly four years now, a Federal District Court Judge in Corpus Christi has ruled that Texas’s Voter ID law was drafted with the intent that it discriminate against minorities and the poor, a finding that could have a significant impact on its ultimate fate on appeal:
HOUSTON — A federal judge ruled on Monday that the voter identification law the Texas Legislature passed in 2011 was enacted with the intent to discriminate against black and Hispanic voters, raising the possibility that the state’s election procedures could be put back under federal oversight.
In a long-running case over the legality of one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country, the judge found that the law violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
The judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, had made a similar ruling in 2014, but after Texas appealed her decision, a federal appellate court instructed her to review the issue once more.
The appeals court — the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans — found that Judge Ramos had relied too heavily on Texas’ history of discriminatory voting measures and other evidence it labeled “infirm” and asked her to reweigh the question of discriminatory intent.
In her ruling on Monday, Judge Ramos wrote that the evidence cited by the Fifth Circuit “did not tip the scales” in favor of the state.
Her ruling sets the stage for a potential penalty for Texas that could have a long-lasting impact. Lawyers involved in the case said the ruling effectively strikes down the law, although the judge did not issue a separate order doing so. Texas officials are likely to appeal the decision.
“We’re disappointed and will seek review of this ruling at the appropriate time,” said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton.
Some expected the ruling.
“This is an exciting ruling, but it is no surprise,” said Myrna Perez, a deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which represented two of the groups that sued the state, the Texas N.A.A.C.P. and the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus.
“Texas passed the most restrictive photo ID law in the country — a law the legislators knew would hurt minority voting rights, without any evidence justifying it, and they broke all sorts of legislative rules and norms to do it,” Ms. Perez said.
Judge Ramos acknowledged the difficulty of pinning down the Legislature’s motives. She wrote of considering “all available direct and circumstantial evidence of intent” rather than trying to “discern the motivations of particular legislators.” The judge highlighted attempts by Democrats to blunt the racial impact of the law, known as Senate Bill 14, through amendments that were ultimately rejected, including allowing additional types of photo identification. “Many categories of acceptable photo IDs permitted by other states were omitted from the Texas bill,” she wrote.
Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represented some of the plaintiffs, said the ruling on Monday marked the fifth time that a court found that the law had a discriminatory purpose or effect.
Judge Ramos’s decision, she said, “should sound the death knell for burdensome voter ID requirements in Texas and across the country.”
For decades, Texas and several other mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination had been required to seek federal approval before making changes to their voting laws. But the states were freed from that requirement in 2013, after a Supreme Court decision that invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
The finding of intentional discrimination could once again put Texas under federal supervision. It would be the first state brought back into so-called preclearance since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling. Judge Ramos did not address whether she would order Texas to undergo federal oversight, but will examine the issue during the next stage of the case.
The law was passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, but took effect in 2013. It required voters to show a driver’s license, passport or other government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. It was previously found by the appellate court to have a discriminatory effect on black and Hispanic voters, many of whom lacked government-issued photo identification, and as a result was softened for the November 2016 election.
Numerous Democratic lawmakers, voters, civil rights organizations and black and Hispanic groups sued, arguing that Republican legislators steamrollered the bill through the State House and Senate. They said legislators departed from procedural norms in passing the law, including classifying it as emergency legislation, cutting debate short and bypassing the ordinary committee process in both chambers.
The plaintiffs told Judge Ramos in court documents and at various hearings that the law’s true purpose was to help Republicans maintain their hold on power amid the fast-paced growth of Democratic-leaning black and Hispanic voters.
Republican officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who defended the law in court when he served as the state’s attorney general, have long disputed any suggestion that lawmakers intentionally discriminated.
Ian Millhiser summarizes the Court’s opinion:
Monday’s order in Veasey v. Abbott notes several factors that suggest the law was enacted for the purpose of discriminating against African Americans and Latinos, including the law’s disparate impact on these voters and the fact that state lawmakers rushed the state’s voter ID law “through the legislative process without the usual committee analysis, debate, and substantive consideration of amendments.”
The court also noted that, “Texas had become a majority-minority state” with “polarized voting patterns allowing the suppression of the overwhelmingly Democratic votes of African-Americans and Latinos to provide an Anglo partisan advantage.” The state’s Republican legislature, in other words, could use race as a proxy for partisan affiliation. By passing a law that would disproportionately target African Americans and Latinos, lawmakers could protect Republican rule.
Additionally, while Texas claimed that its law exists to prevent voter fraud, not to disenfranchise voters of color, “the evidence shows a tenuous relationship between those rationales and the actual terms of the bill.” Of the 20 million votes cast in the ten years before this law’s passage, only two people were convicted by the kind of voter fraud that is supposedly targeted by voter ID.
This ruling is the latest development in a series of legal challenges against the Texas law that began back in 2013 when the Federal Government filed its own lawsuit against Texas challenging the law under the Voting Rights Act and other provisions of the law, an action that was followed by numerous private actions against the law in the same Court. In October 2014, one of those lawsuits resulted in a ruling in which Judge Gonzalez struck down the law based in no small part on her finding that it had been drafted with a specific intent of discriminating against minorities and the poor and benefiting the Republican Party, a finding which came in the wake of a trial that lasted more than two weeks and included the consideration of evidence such as statements made during the public debates on the law in the Texas legislature. Given that this ruling was handed down mere weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, both the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court issued rulings modifying the District Court Order and allowing the law to remain in effect for the impending General Election, but that was far from the end of the case. Nearly a year later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its own ruling striking down the Texas law that largely agreed with Judge Gonzalez’s ruling. In a subsequent ruling a year later, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Texas law violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As Millhiser notes, the ruling faces something of an uncertain future on appeal. For one thing, the Fifth Circuit remains dominated by Republican appointees even after eight years of Barack Obama in the White House, although it is noteworthy that that Court has been consistently critical of the law in its rulings in this case over the past two years. Additionally, it’s unclear at this point what impact the arrival of Justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court might have on how the Court will view this case and where it might ultimately come down on the issue. It has been nine years since the Court ruled on Voter ID laws in general, and in that case, it was dealing with one of the earliest incarnations of such laws coming out of Indiana. There have been a number of developments since that time, including numerous academic and on-the-ground studies that clearly establish that the kind of in-person voter fraud that these laws are intended to prevent occurs on an incredibly rare basis and that, regardless of the state in which they have been enacted, these laws have had a discriminatory impact on minorities and the poor. Additionally, unlike previous cases, this case comes with a factual finding from the trial judge that there was a discriminatory intent behind the law, a finding that hasn’t been part of the record in other cases. This is potentially significant because the law generally holds that, while a trial judge’s legal rulings are essentially subject to de novo review by an appellate court, factual findings generally cannot be overturned unless there is evidence in the record that shows them to be clearly erroneous. This means that both the Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court may well be bound to apply the law based on this important factual finding, and that could mean the difference in whether or not Judge Gonzalez’s ruling stands or whether it is ultimately overturned. For the time, being, though, this is a clear victory for critics of Voter ID laws and a defeat for states such as Texas that have adopted laws such as this over the past several years.
Here’s the opinion