Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Trump's Texas Voting Rights Case Stance Leaves Judge Unclear

  • U.S. judge deciding if Texas lawmakers wrote law out of bias
  • Trump administration reversing Obama stand on Photo ID law

The Trump administration’s effort to drop part of a lawsuit challenging Texas’s strict voter ID requirements was questioned by a federal judge who must decide whether state lawmakers intended to suppress voting by minority citizens.

The Trump administration is seeking to abandon part of an Obama-era lawsuit challenging Texas’s strict voter ID requirements, as it executes an abrupt shift two weeks after Jeff Sessions took over as attorney general. In court Tuesday, the judge asked how the Justice Department could now say the possibility that Texas lawmakers will repair or replace the earlier law could resolve issues about whether they acted out of bias six years ago.

“I’m still not clear on how that new law affects this case,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi, Texas, told lawyers. “I’m still going to have to rule anyway on what was the state’s intent in 2011.”

The state’s ID law, one of several passed by lawmakers in Republican-leaning states with the stated intention of combating alleged vote fraud, was declared illegally biased against minorities by a federal appeals court in July. Ramos was ordered to quickly tweak the law to let more voters participate in the November election while considering more permanent fixes. Studies show that Hispanic, black and poor voters disproportionately lack photo identification, as well as the time and money needed to get one. They also tend to choose Democratic candidates.

Minority-rights groups have been fighting Texas since 2011 with the support of the Obama administration, which had also sued to block the state’s voter ID law. After President Donald Trump took office in January, the Justice Department joined Texas in asking Ramos to delay any decision until the state’s Republican-controlled legislature had a chance to fix the law itself.

The Justice Department said Monday it would no longer pursue allegations that Texas lawmakers purposefully discriminated against minority voters by requiring them to present one of a handful of approved forms of photo identification. The U.S. said in a court filing it would continue to press its case that the law may have a discriminatory effect while “allowing the Texas Legislature the opportunity to rectify any alleged infirmities with its voter identification law.”

Voting rights groups want Ramos to rule that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities and the poor because that decision might push Texas back under federal supervision for its election policies.

Changes Proposed

During the past week, both houses of the Texas legislature have proposed amendments that would make Ramos’s tweaks to the voter ID law permanent. Registered voters could then cast ballots after presenting utility bills, bank statements, pay stubs, voter registration cards or government checks as proof of their identity. The previous law required a driver’s license or one of six other government-issued ID cards. Registered voters lacking these papers could sign sworn statements they had reasonable impediments to obtaining them in order to vote.

The proposed changes address some shortcomings but don’t eliminate other provisions that may disenfranchise as many as 600,000 registered Texas voters, said Gerald Herbert of the Campaign Legal Center, which opposes the law.

No Guarantee

Chad Dunn, a lawyer for several advocacy groups opposing the law, said Tuesday in court that there’s no guarantee what measures Texas will ultimately adopt or whether‎ they will eliminate the discriminatory effect on poor and minority voters. Pointing to Justice Department lawyers, who remained largely silent during the hearing after explaining that the government had changed its thinking, Dunn said; “The U.S. position? They got it right the first time.”

Matthew Frederick‎, a lawyer for Texas, said opponents have repeatedly criticized the state for not trying to fix the law as proof lawmakers meant to make it harder for minorities to‎ vote. Measures introduced‎ in the state Legislature during the past week would make permanent the temporary tweaks Ramos made to let more voters participate in the presidential election.

Step Ahead

"They can hardly stand here now and say that later action by the legislature is irrelevant,” Frederick told Ramos. He said Texas shouldn’t be punished when the state is "staying one step ahead and following the lead of the courts."

John Gore, a Justice Department lawyer, said judges are required to give lawmakers a shot at fixing their own mistakes before courts impose solutions. The Trump administration “thinks mere consideration requires the court to wait until the end of the legislative session” before Ramos decides the case.

The judge gave lawyers three weeks to explain in writing why they think the changes under consideration should influence her decision in the case.

The case is Veasey v. Abbott, 13-0093, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Corpus Christi, Texas).

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