The Department of Justice this week dropped a key argument in its legal fight against Texas’ voter ID law: It would no longer be making the case that Texas officials knowingly discriminated against black and Latino voters.
The courts have already decided that the 2011 law did illegally discriminate against black and Latino voters, who disproportionally face greater barriers to getting IDs.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos still has to settle whether Texas Republicans designed the law to discriminate, and what she decides could determine whether Texas officials are held accountable. If she finds that Texas officials purposefully disenfranchised voters, the state could once again be forced to have federal officials sign off on all its voting changes.
That was the case from 1975 to 2013, when the state was under congressionally mandated oversight. Texas had a long history of racially discriminatory voting laws, as we covered in a Reveal episode last fall. It used to hold all-white primaries, conduct literacy tests and impose poll taxes.
Here’s Ramos in her original 2014 ruling on the law:
Texas leaders didn’t fare too well while they were under federal control, known as “preclearance.” In every redistricting cycle since 1970, Texas violated the Voting Rights Act by creating racially gerrymandered districts, according to the appeals court decision.
In fact, the Justice Department originally blocked the Texas voter ID law when it was passed in 2011. The state wasn’t allowed to implement it because the civil rights division said it was discriminatory. But in 2013, the Supreme Court decided that the preclearance system used by Congress was no longer valid. Prejudice wasn’t the problem it had once been, the majority said. With that newfound freedom, Texas officials revived the voter ID law in just two hours.
However, judges still have the power to put states under federal control, if the plaintiffs have to prove Texas Republicans acted with intent.
Perhaps it won’t really matter if Texas loses and is put under federal control. After all, it would be Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department that would be in charge of the oversight, at least for the next four years. It’s his department that pulled its support for this case, saying the issue is moot now that Texas lawmakers passed a new ID law. He’s made it clear he’s no fan of the Voting Rights Act.
But federal courts have so far come down extraordinarily hard on Texas in the legal challenge brought by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department and a host of advocacy organizations.
In her 2014 ruling, Ramos obliterated Texas officials. She dug deep into Texas’ history of discrimination. She explored the lingering social problems of the history of discrimination. She found little truth in the justification given for passing the law: preventing voter fraud. Ramos ruled that the Legislature radically diverged from the typical process for passing laws.
She said it discriminated against black and Latino voters, who are more likely to encounter barriers to getting an ID. It can cost money. It can require long travel from rural areas. Older residents born at home in rural areas can also struggle to get the proper documentation.
And Ramos found that Texas officials discriminated on purpose.
A year later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Ramos on nearly everything, including that the law discriminated against black and Latino voters. (The Supreme Court later declined to hear Texas’ appeal of that aspect.)
But the appeals court said Ramos erred in how she came to her conclusion that Texas officials acted with intent. She relied, in part, on conjecture from opponents of the bill.
The appeals court didn’t rule out the possibility that the remainder of the evidence would still point to intent:
The judges directed Ramos to reconsider her decision without the conjecture. She was back in court Tuesday in a hearing in advance of that decision. She questioned the Justice Department’s reasons for dropping the case, but said it wouldn’t prevent her from moving forward.
“I’m still going to have to rule anyway on what was the state’s intent in 2011,” she said, according to Bloomberg.