CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – The Justice Department on Monday moved to dismiss its claims against a Texas voter ID law – which the Fifth Circuit found discriminates against minorities – out of deference to the Texas Legislature, which is working on an amendment to loosen access to the polls.
During former President Barack Obama’s administration, the Justice Department joined a legal challenge brought by Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and others against Senate Bill 14, the Texas photo ID law signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2011.
Signaling a shift away from defending voter rights under its new leader Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department last week asked U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to continue the case until June 18, the day the Texas Legislature adjourns, to give the Legislature time to pass Senate Bill 5.
Filed on Feb. 21 by 20 Republican lawmakers, SB 5 would let registered voters who do not have proper photo identification vote by presenting a certified birth certificate, bank statement, paycheck or utility bill and by signing a “reasonable impediment” affidavit stating why they could not get SB 14 ID.
The remedies in the proposed law mirror those in an interim plan approved by Ramos for the November 2016 elections, after an en banc Fifth Circuit ruled last summer that SB 14 discriminates against minorities.
The Fifth Circuit also ordered Ramos to hold hearings to decide whether Texas lawmakers intentionally crafted the law to disenfranchise minorities. Texas has consistently argued it passed the law to crack down on voter fraud.
After Ramos denied the Justice Department’s motion to continue on Friday, the department filed a motion Monday to voluntary dismiss its discriminatory intent claim with prejudice.
The department says in the dismissal motion it wants to give the Texas Legislature “the opportunity to rectify any alleged infirmities with its voter identification law.”
Danielle Lang with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, represents Congressman Veasey and other plaintiffs in the case.
“We are pressing forward with the discriminatory purpose claim, so while it is disappointing and a concerning signal from the Department of Justice about their position on voting rights it will not change our position in the case,” she said in an interview.
She said if SB 5 passes it would not moot her clients’ claims because they are seeking other relief under the Voting Rights Act.
“We are still reviewing that law but it does appear there are several concerning aspects including additional criminal penalties, which appear unnecessary given Texas already has an existing law against perjury,” she said.
Janai Nelson with the NAACP Legal Defense Educational Fund will appear for the plaintiffs tomorrow in Judge Ramos’ Corpus Christi courtroom for a hearing on the discriminatory-purpose claims.
“We reject any attempt on the part of DOJ to lay the groundwork for an about-face when it comes to defending equal access to the ballot for hundreds of thousands of Texans who have suffered under Texas’s racially discriminatory voter ID law,” she said in a statement.
“This Department of Justice, like every other before it, is charged with upholding and enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we intend to hold them accountable to that core mission.”
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined Texas’ request to review the en banc Fifth Circuit ruling, but urged Texas to seek another hearing after the case plays out before Ramos.
Despite its decision not to hear the case, the Supreme Court played a part in SB 14’s tortured history with a 2013 ruling that critics say gutted the Voting Rights Act.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the high court threw out Voting Rights Act requirements that states and counties with a history of discrimination get approval for any voting law changes from the federal government – giving Texas leave to implement the law.
SB 14 allows seven forms of photo ID, making it the strictest voter ID law in the United States. Around 608,000 registered voters in Texas do not have proper SB 14 ID – 4.5 percent of all registered voters in Texas, according to the case record.