CORPUS CHRISTI, TX and WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 23, 2017) — Groups and individuals suing Texas over its strict photo ID law filed a brief in U.S. District Court Thursday in opposition to a joint request by the state and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), who asked to delay a hearing to determine whether the law was enacted with a discriminatory intent.
The state and DOJ said in their request that a bill had been filed in the Texas Legislature which, if passed, would amend the existing strict law. Courts have held four times that the current law discriminates against African Americans and Latinos.
In opposing the request, plaintiffs argue that the contents of the new legislation are speculative at this point, and that the bill has not yet been passed. Even if passed into law, the bill “has no bearing on whether SB 14, enacted in 2011, was passed with unlawful discriminatory purpose,” they wrote. The intent hearing was ordered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last summer when it ruled that the Texas law had a discriminatory effect.
Texas first attempted to delay the intent hearing last year, which the court denied. On Inauguration Day, the court granted a separate request from Justice Department lawyers to postpone the hearing, which had been scheduled for late-January, in order to allow the DOJ under the new administration to examine the issues in the case.
The hearing was rescheduled for Tuesday, February 28 in front of U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, the same judge who found the law to be intentionally discriminatory in October 2014. For the last 5 years, in various federal courts, the Department of Justice has steadfastly taken the position that the Texas bill was intentionally discriminatory.
In July 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, agreed that the law has the effect of discriminating against African American and Latino voters in Texas, becoming the fourth court in four years to declare the law racially discriminatory. But it sent the case back to the lower court for further review of the claim that the Texas legislature had intended to discriminate when passing the law.
The Texas State Conference of the NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, or MALC, challenged the Texas law in September 2013. That case was consolidated with other similar cases and is now known as Veasey v. Abbott. The attorneys representing the groups include the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of 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.
“Once again, Texas is attempting to delay resolution of this important long-standing case, now supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s changed position on the need for further delay,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Regardless of the Justice Department’s shifting positions, we are fully prepared to move forward now and seek to present evidence making clear that the Texas Voter ID law was enacted with the intent to discriminate against African-American and Latino voters. Texas and the Justice Department must stop looking for excuses to delay this important hearing as voters and would-be voters have been denied relief for far too long. In our brief submitted to the court today, we urge the court to flatly reject this latest attempt by the Justice Department and Texas to stall this important litigation.”
“Texas’ photo ID law will have a discriminatory effect and was passed with discriminatory intent,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “I’m glad that it has finally registered with Texas’ leadership that the law needs to be changed. It is too bad for Texans that it has taken five years, four adverse court rulings, and millions of dollars spent to get there.”
“Minority and less fortunate citizens have suffered long enough, and we do not think it’s wise to delay the hearing pending the adoption of legislation that may not repair the discriminatory effects of SB 14,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and an attorney with the Bledsoe Law Firm. “This is like having a patient with a gunshot wound being asked to wait for surgery until the person who pulled the gun has time on his schedule to perform the surgery. That makes no sense.”
“This has gone on long enough,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, chairman of MALC. “The last election showed how thousands of Texas voters are adversely impacted by the strict photo ID laws. Because core democratic principles like voting rights are at stake, we strongly encourage the court to move forward on the question of intentional discrimination by the State of Texas.”
“We are prepared to prove that Texas acted with discriminatory intent in enacting the photo ID law, and our clients are entitled to a ruling on that important issue,” said Amy L. Rudd of Dechert LLP, pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and MALC. “Given the Texas Legislature’s numerous attempts to make voting more difficult in Texas, a determination now that the photo ID law was passed with discriminatory intent hopefully would dissuade future lawmaking with the same purpose and effect.”
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 violates 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.