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Supreme Court Lets Texas Continue Enforcing Voter-ID Law

Updated on
  • Compromise order leaves open possibility of intervention later
  • Justices invite new filing if lower court hasn't acted by July

The U.S. Supreme Court let Texas continue, for now, to enforce a voter-identification law that two lower courts said places a disproportionate burden on racial minorities.

The one-paragraph order Friday is a rebuff to civil rights groups, though it left open the possibility of high court intervention later. The order, which came without published dissent, invited a new filing if a federal appeals court hasn’t acted by July 20.

Opponents were aiming to stop the law before Texas begins preparations for November’s balloting. The order said the Supreme Court “recognizes the time constraints the parties confront in light of the scheduled elections in November 2016.”

The order marks a compromise in a case that sharply divided the justices when they refused to block the measure before the 2014 election. That clash led Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to stay up virtually all night writing a dissenting opinion.

Appeals Court Arguments

Although a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded in 2015 that the Texas measure discriminates against minority voters in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, that court didn’t put the measure on hold. A larger group of judges on the New Orleans-based appeals court is preparing to reconsider the case, with arguments set for May 24.

The Supreme Court effectively gave the 5th Circuit a deadline of July 20 to either rule or make adjustments to the stay order that is currently letting the law be enforced. If neither of those happens by July 20, “an aggrieved party may seek interim relief from this court by filing an appropriate application,” the high court said.

Both sides claimed a measure of victory.

“We’re very encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes the time constraints involved in this case,” said Gerry Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and one of the lawyers challenging the law. “This order gives us the opportunity to protect Texas voters if the 5th Circuit fails to rule in time.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “We appreciate the Supreme Court allowing the law to remain in effect at this time and look forward to defending the merits of our case in front of the entire 5th Circuit next month.”

North Carolina Rules

The Obama administration is also part of the suit against Texas, though government lawyers didn’t join the civil rights groups in seeking Supreme Court intervention.

The Supreme Court is likely to see a wave of voting-related requests in the coming months, giving the justices a potentially pivotal role in the November election. The Texas order comes in the wake of a federal trial judge’s decision this week upholding new North Carolina voting rules, including a photo-ID requirement, the elimination of same-day registration, and a reduction in the days available for early voting.

Friday’s four-sentence order took the court more than a month to produce, suggesting the dispute sparked some behind-the-scenes wrangling that was eventually resolved with a compromise.

Handgun Permits

A federal trial judge found that more than 600,000 Texans, including a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics, lack one of the forms of identification required under the law. The measure lets voters use driver’s licenses, military IDs and concealed-handgun permits, but not student or employee IDs.

“There was uncontradicted evidence that, in the picking and choosing of which IDs would be valid and which would not, the legislature repeatedly made choices that would favor white or Anglo voters and disfavor minority voters,” the League of United Latin American Citizens and 13 Texas residents said in papers filed with the Supreme Court.

Texas officials say those challenging the law haven’t pointed to any specific person who is unable to obtain an accepted form of identification. The state says that it issues free election-identification certificates to people with supporting documentation, and that disabled and elderly people can vote by mail without photo ID.

‘Legitimate Means’

“Plaintiffs submitted no evidence of depressed voter turnout or registration -- much less that any such effect on voting was caused by” the law, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller said in court papers. He called voter-ID laws a “legitimate means to combat election fraud and safeguard voter confidence.”

Opponents of the law said the situation was different in 2014 because of the proximity of the election. After a trial judge barred the law’s enforcement on Oct. 9 that year, an appeals court panel blocked the ruling -- and let the law remain in effect -- because of the “extremely fast-approaching election date.”

The civil-rights groups say Texas hasn’t shown that it’s entitled to an order keeping the law in effect beyond the 2014 elections.

The case is Veasey v. Abbott, 15A999.

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