The Trump administration is reversing yearslong federal support for a legal challenge to Texas’ toughest-in-the-nation voter identification law, withdrawing a Justice Department claim of discrimination from a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups, one of which called the reversal an “extraordinary disappointment.”
In a motion filed Monday, the Justice Department asked a federal court to dismiss its claim during the Obama administration that the law was enacted with the intent to discriminate against minority voters.
Citing recently introduced state voter ID legislation, Justice Department attorneys said they want to allow the “Texas Legislature the opportunity to rectify any alleged infirmities with its voter identification law” rather than continue litigation.
But Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups challenging the voter ID law, said the “facts about whether the law was enacted with discriminatory intent haven’t changed at all. The fact are the facts.”
“The only thing that changed as a matter of fact is who sits in the Office of Attorney General,” Mr. Hebert said, referring to the Justice Department’s new chief, former Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Texas’ Republican-led Legislature enacted the law in 2011, which requires voters to show one of seven forms of state-approved photo ID. Gun permits are approved, but college IDs do not qualify.
The Justice Department and voting rights activists sued in 2013, arguing that more than 600,000 Texans would experience difficulty voting because they lack any suitable ID under the law.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud.
The case returns to court Tuesday in Corpus Christi, Texas, before U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos.
The Justice Department’s move to dismiss its claim that the Texas law was adopted with a discriminatory purpose is not an outright withdrawal of the department from the case — the department’s claim that the law had a discriminatory effect remains intact.
Voting rights activists say the distinction is significant.
If a judge rules that lawmakers acted with discriminatory intent when they adopted the law, Texas could again be placed on the list of states required under the Voting Rights Act to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before changing its election laws, Mr. Hebert said.
Danielle Lang, the Campaign Legal Center’s deputy director of voting rights, called the Justice Department’s decision an “extraordinary disappointment” and “a complete 180.”
Democratic lawmakers also expressed concern over the message the Justice Department is sending.
“The Justice Department’s decision to reverse its position that Texas’ voter ID law was adopted with discriminatory intent does not bode well for this administration’s approach to voting rights,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “During Attorney General Sessions’ confirmation process, I repeatedly expressed my concern about his hostility toward federal efforts to protect voting rights and approval of the Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Now we’re seeing those concerns manifest themselves.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, said that with this decision, “the Trump administration has officially embarked on a mission of voter suppression.”
“There is no question that defenders of the right to vote are on notice that we must be vigilant in protecting the civil rights of all Americans and that every vote counts,” Mr. Conyers said.
Even the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division weighed in with criticism.
“While elections are inherently political, protecting the franchise should never be,” said former prosecutor Vanita Gupta. “The Justice Department’s reversal of its long-standing position, advocated by career lawyers in a case they’ve been litigating since 2011, troublingly advocates letting Texas off the hook before state officials fix a voter ID law that courts have deemed discriminatory.”
However, others in favor of stricter voter protection laws meant to combat voter fraud praised the move.
“Texans are one step closer to having a common-sense voter protection that has been demanded for years,”said Public Interest Legal Foundation President J. Christian Adams. “Since the Obama administration’s initial filing, the federal government’s position has only grown weaker. The Texas Legislature is on its way to implementing the adjustments called for by the 5th Circuit to help voters in need, while the doomsday scenarios pitched by voter ID foes have proven to be a farce.”
The Justice Department filed its motion to dismiss the claim a day before a District Court judge was scheduled to rehear arguments in the case to determine whether state lawmakers acted with a discriminatory intent.
In court filings last week, the Texas attorney general and the Justice Department joined to seek to delay Tuesday’s hearing by at least four months, citing the voter identification bill introduced by the Legislature. They defended the delay, arguing that any elections in the meantime would be governed by the interim rules put into place for the November election.
“At a minimum, the State Defendants and the United States anticipate that the parties would file a new round of briefing and present a new round of oral argument on the discriminatory purpose claim if Texas enacts new voter ID legislation,” Texas and Justice Department attorneys wrote in a joint motion. “Thus, there is no reason for the Court or the parties to devote additional time and resources to arguing the discriminatory purpose claim on the current briefing and record now, before the Texas Legislature has had a chance to act on the new proposed legislation.”
Judge Ramos denied the motion to postpone the hearing.
The case returns to Judge Ramos after the U.S. Supreme Court in January declined to hear an appeal brought by Texas officials and let stand a lower-court ruling that found the Republican-backed law discriminated against minorities.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the law violated the federal Voting Rights Act, but it did not toss out the law in its entirety. Instead, in a 9-6 ruling, the 5th Circuit remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Judge Ramos, who originally found in 2014 that the law was unconstitutional and was passed by Texas lawmakers with the intent to discriminate, was asked to re-evaluate whether the Texas Legislature acted with a discriminatory intent. She also is tasked with overseeing changes to the law that would allow the state to safeguard the integrity of its elections while not discriminating against minority voters.