NEW ORLEANS — State officials and the minority rights groups suing Texas over its strict voter identification restrictions are headed back to court.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on Tuesday over the state's recent revisions to its 2011 voter identification law and whether those changes cure legal issues with the original law. The recent changes — which softened previous voter ID requirements considered among the toughest in the nation — were passed in response to court rulings that the 2011 law discriminated against Hispanic and black voters.
Why is the case back in court?
Since Texas lawmakers passed the 2011 voter ID law, the state and the measure's foes have faced off several times in court. This time around, they’ll largely focus on Senate Bill 5, a bill the Legislature passed earlier this year after courts found fault with the previous law.
Last year, the 5th Circuit ruled that the 2011 law disproportionately burdened minority voters, who were less likely to have one of seven forms of identification the state required them to show at the polls. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos upped the ante in April, ruling that the state discriminated against those voters on purpose. Her ruling raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to put Texas' elections laws back under federal oversight.
Following those rulings, Texas leaders proposed SB 5, a bill that mostly followed the lead of temporary voter ID rules Ramos put in place for the 2016 elections in an effort to ease the state's requirements.
Those voters could present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks to confirm their identification. Those found to have lied about not possessing the proper photo ID could be charged with a state jail felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail.
Under the new law, the permissible IDs remain the same as the earlier law: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S. citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.
But in August, Ramos tossed that bill out, too, saying it didn't clear Texas lawmakers of discriminating against Hispanic and black voters when they passed the original law.
"Not one of the discriminatory features of [the old law] is fully ameliorated by the terms of SB 5,” she wrote.
That sent the case on to the 5th Circuit for appeals.
Why did the state appeal the case?
In briefs filed with the appellate court, the state's attorneys described the district judge's ruling as "profoundly erroneous.” Texas “substantially modified” its voting laws through SB 5, they argued, remedying any issues the courts identified in the original law.
They said any arguments against the original 2011 law are now moot and that plaintiffs cannot identify a single voter who faces "a substantial burden" to voting under the revisions. Additionally, state attorneys argued that Ramos’ decision to block SB 5 was improper because “a new law requires a new challenge.”
Beyond those points, the state also asked the 5th Circuit to throw out Ramos’ ruling that the original voter ID law was passed to intentionally discriminate against Hispanic and black voters. The state argued that ruling is faulty and “rests on myriad legal errors and clearly erroneous fact-findings.”
What do the law's opponents argue?
The plaintiffs argue that criticism of Ramos’ rulings falls short of proving the “clear error” needed for a courtroom reversal and that her finding of intentional discrimination is “at the heart of this appeal.”
When it comes to intentional discrimination, the law requires a fix that ensures “all vestiges of discriminatory intent” are eliminated “root and branch.” SB 5 was no such fix, they add, because it “perpetuated” almost all of the original voter ID law’s “discriminatory features."
If the appellate court agrees with the state's claims, it would undermine laws against intentional discrimination, they argue — opening the door for cities and states to purposefully discriminate without ever being forced to “remedy their pernicious intent.”