U.S. sues Texas over voter ID (FURTHER UPDATED)
UPDATE 4:05 p.m. The text of the new lawsuit against the Texas voter ID law is here. (It has been docketed as 13-263) The San Antonio motion to intervene on redistricting is not yet available.
The Justice Department went to court again on Thursday to challenge the legality of Texas’s voter ID law — a law that Texas says it has put back into effect since the Supreme Court freed the state from federal court supervision. In that new lawsuit and in a new maneuver in a pending case over new election districting maps for Texas, the Department will be asking that the state be placed back under court oversight over all of its election laws, for at least a decade. Both new moves were announced in a press release. The legal filings are not yet available.
“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “The Department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs.”
Holder said the Texas filings were “the latest action to protect voting rights, but will not be the last.” That statement may have been a signal that the Obama administration will also mount a legal challenge to the sweeping new North Carolina law limiting voting rights in that state.
In the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 25 in an Alabama case, Shelby County v. Holder, Texas and other state and local governments that had been required to get legal clearance in Washington for any changes in their election laws were spared from that duty, at least for the time being. The Court made the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, the preclearance provision, unenforceable by striking down the coverage formula for that section.
The Justice Department had previously signaled that it would make energetic efforts in the courts to prevent Texas from enforcing new voting laws or methods until it gets advance approval from either a federal court or the attorney general, by applying a seldom-used part of the 1965 law — Section 3, the so-called “bail in” option. (That advance review process is similar to, but different in detail, from what occurred under Section 5.)
Texas’s voter ID law, referred to as “Senate Bill 14,” requires all voters to produce an official photo document in order to be able to vote. The state sought to enforce it by asking a three-judge district court in Washington to clear it under Section 5, but that court refused. The Justice Department objected that the requirement would impair the voting rights of black and Hispanic voters.
The district court’s refusal to clear the measure was not a decision that it violated the Constitution, but that it did not satisfy the Section 5 standard for enforcing voter laws in a state covered by Section 5. After the Supreme Court issued its Shelby County decision and sent the Washington case back to the district court, Texas moved to have the case dismissed. The Justice Department had said earlier that it would offer its views on what should happen next in that case, but it had not done so — until Thursday’s announcement came of the new lawsuit.
The new voter ID lawsuit is being filed in a single-judge federal district court in Corpus Christi, the Department said. It will be filed under the 1965 Act’s Section 2 — a ban on racial and ethnic discrimination, applying nationwide. The Department said it will contend that SB 14 is illegal under Section 2, and that it also is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. (The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision noted that Section 2 remained intact.)
In that proceeding, the Department will also ask that the judge invoke the Act’s Section 3, and impose the requirement that Texas get advance approval for any change it makes in voting law or procedure, however minor. The Department previously had said that it wanted that requirement to be reinstated for at least a decade, and maybe for longer, depending upon how the state acts when passing new voting laws.
Thursday’s second maneuver will be a formal request to a three-judge district court in San Antonio to allow the federal government to intervene as a party, so that it can offer evidence that 2011 redistricting plans for the state legislature’s lower house and for the state’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives were adopted with the purpose of discriminating against voters, in violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Act and of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
It was in that San Antonio case — originally filed against the 2011 maps by minority voters and civil rights organizations — that the Justice Department had first signaled, in the wake of the Shelby County decision, that it would try to get Texas put under a Section 3 preclearance regime in that court. It indicated its plan in a formal “statement of interest” in that case. Now, it seeks to enter the case formally. That case is Perez v. Perry (District docket 11-360). There has not yet been a ruling there on whether the 2011 plans are illegal.
As in the voter ID case in Corpus Christ, the Justice Department will also formally ask in the San Antonio case for Texas to be be denied the authority to enforce any voting law without advance approval under Section 3.
Texas has asked that the San Antonio case be dismissed, arguing that the state legislature has since adopted new redistricting maps and thus those at issue in the case will not be used. Both the challengers and the Justice Department argue that the challenge to the 2011 maps is still a live controversy.