Fees Denied to Foes of Texas Voter ID Law
(CN) - Opponents of Texas' Voter ID law will not recover attorneys' fees because their court challenge did not stop the law from taking effect, a federal judge ruled.
Passed by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature in 2011, Senate Bill 14, requires all Texas voters to come to the polls with photo identification. Options for such identification include a driver's license or concealed handgun license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state lawmakers claim SB 14 prevents voter fraud.
The National Conference of State Legislatures counts Texas among eight states that require a photo ID to vote.
In each of those states - Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia - voters who do not have photo ID can cast a provisional ballot but must later submit a photo ID to election officials for their votes to count.
Because of Texas' history of discrimination, however, it had to get Justice Department approval for SB 14 under the Voting Rights Act. Texas submitted its request for SB 14 in July 2011.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder found the info in Texas' preclearance application incomplete twice in the fall of 2011 and requested further evidence of nondiscrimination.
As Texas worked to get SB 14 approved, the Justice Department denied South Carolina's request for preclearance of a Voter ID law that was nearly identical to SB 14. Assuming the feds would deny its application on similar grounds, Texas filed a 2012 federal complaint against Holder in Washington, D.C., seeking a declaration that SB 14 "neither has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race."
Texas' prediction proved spot on, as Holder denied SB 14 preclearance two months later. He said Texas officials failed to prove the law would not disenfranchise minority voters.
A three-judge panel in Washington described SB 14 as "the most stringent in the country" and ruled against Texas in August 2012, persuaded by the government's study showing black and Latino registered voters were almost twice as likely as white registered voters to not have photo ID.
The ruling thwarted Texas' goal of implementing its Voter ID law for the November 2012 election.
Texas appealed to the Supreme Court. Before the high court got to the appeal, however, it threw out the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act with its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
This led the Supreme Court to vacate the panel's preclearance denial of SB 14, and the panel dismissed the case on remand. A group that had intervened in the case in opposition of SB 14 then asked for $353,000 in attorneys' fees and costs.
The intervenor group includes black Congressman Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Eric Kennie, a Texan who lacks a valid photo ID but, according to his deposition, voted in 2012 election because of the original ruling against SB 14.
Even though SB 14 did take effect, Kennie and company said they won because the panel found that the law violated the Voting Rights Act and blocked Texas from imposing it for the November 2012 elections, a "real-world impact" that entitles them to attorney's fees and costs.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, who sat on the three-judge panel that declined to green-light SB 14 in 2012, shot down the request Monday.
The ruling is a polar opposite from one she handed down last month in Texas v. United State s , which consolidated several lawsuits involving Texas' efforts to implement redistricting maps.
In that case Collyer awarded more than $1 million in attorney's fees and costs to three groups of intervenor-defendants: $466,680 to state legislators from districts in the Forth Worth area; $597,715 to a group of black and Hispanic voters; and $32,374 to the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches.
Collyer contrasted the two cases Monday, however, noting that the Texas Legislature redrew the state's voting districts and abandoned the proposed redistricting maps after a federal three-judge panel denied preclearance.
With its Shelby County ruling the Supreme Court vacated the panel's decision to deny the maps preclearance, and directed the panel to decide whether the flap had been mooted by Texas' lawmakers redrawing of the maps.
On remand, the panel did indeed find the dispute had been mooted.
But Collyer decided the redistricting fight intervenors "did not lose prevailing-party status due to subsequent mootness" since they had successfully blocked Texas from implementing its proposed voting maps.
In light of the opposite outcomes of the redistricting fight and Voter ID dust-up, Collyer found Kennie and his fellow intervenors do not deserve attorneys' fees.
"There is a sound basis for enforcing this procedural distinction," the 20-page ruling states. "For instance, in Texas v. United States, the prevailing-party status of defendant-intervenors comported with a commonsense determination of what it means to 'prevail': defendant-intervenors challenged Texas's proposed redistricting maps and, both immediately after the three-judge court's decision and today, those redistricting maps are not in force.
"By contrast, this case did not become moot and Texas never changed its endorsement of SB 14. The state of Texas simply appealed until it won and the three-judge panel decision barring SB 14 was vacated. The court concludes that the Kennie intervenors' prevailing-party status did not survive the Supreme Court's vacatur of the three-judge panel's decision denying preclearance."