DOJ Reverses Course on Texas Voter ID Law Challenge

Posted February 28, 2017

The Department of Justice under President Donald Trump will support Texas officials' claim that the state's voter identification law did not specifically target minority voters, retreating from the federal government's previous stance that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated when crafting the law. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who is presiding over the case, turned down the request. Were this week's court hearing scheduled, say, when Barack Obama was president, the feds would have come in with the assist. The DOJ under the Obama administration viewed the rule as draconian to the point that it unconstitutionally violated safeguards of the Voting Rights Act.

Texas enacted the strict voter ID law in 2011, and it has been tied up in court battles ever since. She said her organization has been "raising alarm bells" about new Attorney General Jeff Sessions' willingness to protect voting rights since he was nominated.

Voting rights lawyers are set to argue in a Corpus Christi federal court on Tuesday that Texas lawmakers knew their voter ID law discriminated against Hispanics and African Americans, and yet passed it anyway. They are also disproportionately likely to vote Democratic. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made the legislation a "priority", which allows it a faster track.

But lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton counter that opponents have no smoking gun. Ramos granted that postponement, scheduling the arguments for February 28. The division oversees the DOJ's implementation of federal law on voting, and Wheeler's appointment was another sign of the Trump administration's intention to switch sides.

"There have been six years of litigation and no change in the facts", Lang told TPM.

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But the Justice Department's decision to sit out the case offers a window into how the Trump administration - and its chief legal officer - is going to approach challenges to state voter identification laws.

The DOJ had previously argued exactly that.

In a 2014 ruling, Ramos found that Texas meant to discriminate, but the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals - in a ruling affirming the law's discriminatory effect - instructed Ramos to reconsider the evidence. "Thus, there is no reason for the Court or the parties to devote additional time and resources to arguing the discriminatory objective claim on the current briefing and record now, before the Texas Legislature has had a chance to act on the new proposed legislation".

"Private plaintiffs will continue to pursue justice in this matter", she said. For one, there may be no other state where Republicans have more to lose from a sharp uptick in voter participation among nonwhite voters: If Texas's Hispanic citizens turned out at the same rate as its non-Hispanic whites, it would (almost certainly) be a swing state by now.

Tomorrow's hearing will still go forward as planned, as the DOJ was not the only plaintiff in the case.