By Chuck Lindell – American-Statesman Staff
Trump administration drops complaint that the Texas voter ID law was intended to discriminate.
Move reverses Obama-era claim that Republicans tried to suppress black, Hispanic voters.
In a sharp reversal from the Obama administration, the U.S. Justice Department told a federal judge Monday that it will drop efforts to prove that the Texas voter ID law was written to intentionally discriminate against black and Latino voters.
The move would give the Texas Legislature time to act on Senate Bill 5, introduced last week, which appears to cure problems that a federal appeals court had identified with the state’s voter ID law, the Trump administration lawyers said.
“The United States maintains that the appropriate course is to await the Texas Legislature’s consideration of SB 5 before conducting any further proceedings in this case,” the Justice Department told U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in a motion filed Monday afternoon.
Opponents of the law vowed to continue pressing Ramos to rule that Texas Republicans enacted the law in 2011 to impede voters, particularly racial and ethnic minorities who typically support Democrats.
“SB 5 is an important development insofar as the state is giving the signal that it accepts responsibility for adopting a discriminatory law,” said Chad Dunn, a lawyer for civil rights groups and elected officials who also sued to overturn the voter ID law.
“The case that the original voter ID law was intended to be discriminatory is strong. At this point we intend to continue to press that case,” Dunn said.
The Texas law ran into trouble when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that it discriminated against minorities and the poor, infringing on the voting rights of about 600,000 registered Texas voters who lacked a government-issued photo ID.
Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to review the lower court ruling.
In the meantime, the 5th Circuit Court returned the case to Ramos with instructions to determine whether the law was written to be intentionally discriminatory.
A hearing on the matter will be held Tuesday in Ramos’ Corpus Christi courtroom.
Last week, Ramos denied a request, made by lawyers for Paxton and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to postpone the hearing while SB 5 works its way through the legislative process.
The Trump administration’s motion to drop the discrimination claim was a sharp change under Sessions, who took charge of the Justice Department 2½ weeks ago.
As recently as November, the agency under the Obama administration — which joined the lawsuit against Texas in 2013 — argued that Texas Republicans passed the law to intentionally discriminate against Latino and black voters, two fast-growing segments of the population that tend to favor Democrats.
“Compelling evidence establishes that Texas enacted (the voter ID law) at least in part because of its detrimental effects on African-American and Hispanic voters,” the agency told Ramos in November.
On Monday, however, the Justice Department said it will no longer pursue the discrimination claim because SB 5 includes many of the voter ID changes ordered by Ramos for the November general election — allowing, for example, a wider array of identification for those without a government-issued photo ID.
The motion also indicated that the federal agency could refile its opposition to the Texas voter ID law if the Legislature doesn’t pass the bill before the session ends May 29.
With all 20 Republican senators signed on as co-authors, SB 5 would allow registered voters without a driver’s license or other form of photo ID to show alternate identification at the polls, including a voter registration certificate, current bank statement or utility bill, a government check or employment paycheck, or a birth certificate. Acceptable documents must show the voter’s name and address.
Voters using alternate forms of identification would have to sign an affidavit saying that they did not have a government-issued photo ID because of illness, disability, work schedule or family responsibilities, or because it had been lost or stolen.
Under SB 5, voters who are not truthful on the affidavit could be prosecuted for perjury, a third-degree felony with a punishment ranging from two to 10 years in prison.
On Monday, state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, filed an identical measure, House Bill 2481.