Justice Department dials back Holder-era suit, says court should let Texas amend law.
Signaling a major change from the previous administration, the Justice Department on Monday announced that it was abandoning a key claim in a voter identification lawsuit against Texas.
The Justice Department under then-Attorney General Eric Holder had accused the state of intentionally discriminating against minority voters when it adopted the law in 2011. With the department under new management, however, federal lawyers wrote in a court filing Monday that Texas should be given a chance to follow recommendations made by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Texans are one step closer to having a common-sense voter protection that has been demanded for years.”
“Accordingly, the United States has determined that, rather than continuing to litigate the purpose claim on an evolving record, it should give full effect to the Fifth Circuit’s directives by withdrawing that claim and allowing the Texas Legislature the opportunity to rectify any alleged infirmities with its voter identification law,” the filing states.
The Justice Department continues to maintain, as the appellate court found, that the voter ID law had a disparate impact on minorities.
The shift in position comes on the eve of a long-awaited hearing in the case Tuesday and leaves plaintiffs without their most powerful ally. The Justice Department and the state of Texas had sought a postponement of that hearing, but the denied the request.
Advocates of stronger ballot-integrity laws cheered the change.
“Texans are one step closer to having a common-sense voter protection that has been demanded for years,” Public Interest Legal Foundation President J. Christian Adams said in a prepared statement. “Since the Obama Administration’s initial filing, the federal government’s position has only grown weaker.”
Other plaintiffs blasted the change but added they are prepared to make the case without the federal government’s help.
“There is absolutely no change in the facts, so the posture should not change,” said Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center. “We do, of course, see [the Justice Department’s decision] as a disappointment … This is the administration’s first opportunity to demonstrate that commitment.”
The Campaign Legal Center is representing Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), one of the plaintiffs in the case.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general’s office also declined to comment.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an emailed respond to question from LifeZette that the Justice Department is wrong to change its stance.
“We have already had a nine-day trial and presented thousands of pages of documents demonstrating that the picking and choosing of what IDs count was entirely discriminatory and would fall more harshly on minority voters,” she wrote. “So for the [Justice Department] to come in and drop those claims just because of a change of administration is outrageous.”
The Texas law has been under assault for almost six years. The Justice Department opposed the law shortly after it was passed in 2011. At the time, Texas was among the sates that needed advanced permission from the Justice Department before making changes to its voting procedures.
After the Supreme Court eliminated that requirement in 2013, Texas implemented the law. Opponents quickly challenged it, and the Justice Department later filed its own suit. Eventually, a judge consolidated all of the plaintiffs into one suit and then ruled against Texas.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit upheld the ruling that the law would have a disparate impact on minorities but sent the case back to the trial judge to reconsider her findings that legislators intended to discriminate. That is the issue U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos will consider Tuesday.
Lang said the distinction is potentially significant because a finding of disparate impact only would make it easier for legislators to address with new legislation. The Texas legislature this week fast-tracked a bill that would do just that. The bill would provide a way for voters to cast ballots if they cannot “reasonably” get one of the seven forms of ID that are accepted at polling places.
Under instructions from the 5th Circuit, Texas was allowed to ask voters for IDs in the November election but had to allow them to vote if they signed affidavits attesting that they were legal voters but did not have identification.
According to the Associated Press, which examined the largest counties in Texas, at least 500 of the 13,500 people who signed affidavits on Election Day were allowed to vote despite indicating that they had voter ID.
Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, the law making its way through the legislature would reduce abuses by requiting voters to select a specific reason why the cannot get an ID. That would help the state devise strategies to get voter IDs to voters, he added.
“This is a data mining opportunity for the state of Texas … to determine where the need is,” he said.
Churchwell said the Justice Department’s new position is significant.
“It’s the biggest it can be without all of the plaintiffs throwing their hands up and saying, ‘We give up,’” he said. “It certainly does not kill the case by any means, but a lot of resources have been taken off the table … You don’t have the might of the federal government behind you.”