Federal Government Sues Over Texas Voter ID Law
Reports of the death of the Voting Rights Act have been greatly exaggerated.
When the Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act earlier this summer, many states that had previously seen their efforts to reform voting procedures blocked by the Justice Department or Federal Courts moved to pass laws that had previously been blocked. Among the first states to act was Texas, which announced that it would go forward with enforcing a Voter ID law that had previously been blocked under Section Four of the VRA. Yesterday, though, the Federal Government filed a Complaint alleging that the law violates Section Two of the Act and seeking to have a Court bar its enforcement:
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday escalated its efforts to restore a stronger federal role in protecting minority voters in Texas, announcing that the Justice Department would become a plaintiff in two lawsuits against the state.
The Justice Department said it would file paperwork to become a co-plaintiff in an existing lawsuit brought by civil rights groups and Texas lawmakers against a Texas redistricting plan. Separately, the department said, it filed a new lawsuit over a state law requiring voters to show photo identification.
In both cases, the administration is asking federal judges to rule that Texas has discriminated against voters who are members of a minority group, and to reimpose on Texas a requirement that it seek “pre-clearance” from the federal government before making any changes to election rules. In June, the Supreme Court removed the requirement by striking down part of the Voting Rights Act.
“Today’s action marks another step forward in the Justice Department’s continuing effort to protect the voting rights of all eligible Americans,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement, adding, “This represents the department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”
The federal government filed a “statement of interest” last month supporting the plaintiffs in the case against the Texas redistricting plan. By becoming a co-plaintiff, the Justice Department will be able to send its own lawyers into the courtroom to make arguments and present evidence directly to the judge.
Texas Republicans denounced the move as an intrusion on states’ rights. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said that “a politicized Justice Department” was “bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas,” adding, “We deserve the freedom to make our own laws, and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points.”
Gov. Rick Perry suggested that the Justice Department was disregarding the 10th Amendment, which reserves to states and individuals those powers not delegated to the federal government.
“The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama,” Mr. Perry said. “We will continue to defend the integrity of our elections against this administration’s blatant disregard for the 10th Amendment.”
The new lawsuits are being brought under a different part of the Voting Rights Act, called Section 2, which bans discriminatory voting rules anywhere. The Supreme Court also left intact Section 3 of the law, which allows courts to impose “pre-clearance” requirements on particular states if they have been found to have intentionally discriminated against voters.
Last year, under the old pre-clearance procedures, federal courts blocked Texas from using both its redistricting plan and photo ID law. They found evidence that the Legislature had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in drawing the districting map, and held that the photo ID law would have the effect of disproportionately suppressing minority voter turnout.
Lyle Denniston has more details:
The new voter ID lawsuit is being filed in a single-judge federal district court in Corpus Christi, the Department said. It will be filed under the 1965 Act’s Section 2 — a ban on racial and ethnic discrimination, applying nationwide. The Department said it will contend that SB 14 is illegal under Section 2, and that it also is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. (The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision noted that Section 2 remained intact.)
In that proceeding, the Department will also ask that the judge invoke the Act’s Section 3, and impose the requirement that Texas get advance approval for any change it makes in voting law or procedure, however minor. The Department previously had said that it wanted that requirement to be reinstated for at least a decade, and maybe for longer, depending upon how the state acts when passing new voting laws.
Thursday’s second maneuver will be a formal request to a three-judge district court in San Antonio to allow the federal government to intervene as a party, so that it can offer evidence that 2011 redistricting plans for the state legislature’s lower house and for the state’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives were adopted with the purpose of discriminating against voters, in violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Act and of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
It was in that San Antonio case — originally filed against the 2011 maps by minority voters and civil rights organizations — that the Justice Department had first signaled, in the wake of the Shelby County decision, that it would try to get Texas put under a Section 3 preclearance regime in that court. It indicated its plan in a formal “statement of interest” in that case. Now, it seeks to enter the case formally. That case is Perez v. Perry (District docket 11-360). There has not yet been a ruling there on whether the 2011 plans are illegal.
It’s worth noting that this same law had previously been struck down under Section Four’s preclearance rules by a three Judge Federal District Court in a decision rendered just under a year ago. That decision, however, was effectively nullified by the Supreme Court’s decision in June, which is why Texas jumped quickly to announce that it intended to enforce the law. While it’s far too early to predict how this case might turn out, one would think that the previous decision will be considered persuasive authority by the Courts considering the Justice Department’s challenge, although they are by no means bound by what the Court in that case decided.
In addition to Texas, Voter ID laws, along with other laws that made significant changes to early voting and voter registration procedures, have also recently been passed into law in North Carolina. While the Federal Government has not yet taken a position regarding those laws, several civil rights organizations have announced their intention to file challenges against the new laws, and one can expect that the Justice Department will be weighing in as well at some point in the future. As I noted when the Justice Department announced its intention to intervene in the case challenging Texas redistricting, these cases demonstrate that much of the consternation that accompanied the Supreme Court’s decision in June was largely overblown. The Federal Government still has the authority to challenge state actions that may violate the Voting Rights Act under Section Two, and Courts have the authority to place any jurisdiction in preclearance under Section Three. This applies to any part of the United States, not just those that were covered under the preclearance rules that were struck down. In the end, one wonders why Section Four is even necessary.
Here’s the Complaint: