Texas Rejected by U.S. Supreme Court on Voter-ID Requirement

  • Chief justice says court may take up dispute at later stage
  • Trump administration could shift government’s stance in case

An official polling location sign stands outside a voting center on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Dallas.

Photographer: LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Texas in defense of its voter-identification law, even as Chief Justice John Roberts signaled interest in hearing the state’s arguments down the road.

The justices said Monday they won’t review a lower court’s conclusions that the Texas law violates the Voting Rights Act by putting a disproportionate burden on racial minorities and that lawmakers might have intentionally discriminated. 

The rejection may be only a temporary win for opponents of the law. In a three-paragraph statement, Roberts said Texas’s arguments were premature because the case is now back in the hands of a federal trial court in Corpus Christi. He said the issues raised by the state "will be better suited" for Supreme Court review after the judge hearing the case had issued a final judgment.

The law’s challengers also face new obstacles at the trial court level. Justice Department lawyers are seeking a delay so that the Trump administration can reconsider the government’s position in the case, which stems from lawsuits filed by the Obama administration and civil rights groups.

Republican-backed photo-ID requirements for voters have sparked partisan battles around the country. Backers say the laws guard against fraud while opponents say the measures are unnecessary and serve primarily to suppress voting by racial minorities.

The Supreme Court has been shorthanded since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. The court is likely to become more receptive to ID requirements once President Donald Trump fills the vacant seat.

The Supreme Court hasn’t heard a voter-ID case since upholding an Indiana law in 2008. The court’s lead opinion in that case said opponents hadn’t provided concrete evidence of a burden on people who lack photo identification.

Civil-rights advocates, and the Obama administration, say they have produced that type of evidence in Texas. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found that more than 600,000 Texans, including a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics, lacked 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.

The most recent appeals court ruling in the case told Ramos to reconsider her conclusion that lawmakers intentionally discriminated when they enacted the measure in 2011. The divided 15-judge panel, however, agreed with Ramos that the law had a discriminatory impact, regardless of the intent.

The ruling forced Texas to soften the law for the 2016 general election, giving people more ways to prove their identity at the polls.

In its Supreme Court appeal, Texas argued that the challengers “presented no evidence that the law resulted in diminished minority political participation or prevented even a single person from voting.”

A group of challengers to the law countered with examples they said showed “undeniable disenfranchisement of voters in Texas, especially minority voters.”

The case is Abbott v. Veasey, 16-393.

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