CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) — The Texas Legislature intentionally crafted a voter ID law to disenfranchise minorities, a federal judge ruled Monday, putting the law on track for possible review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The order is the latest blow to Texas’ voting-rights record, as a three-judge panel of federal judges found in March that the Legislature gerrymandered several congressional districts in 2011 to neutralize the growing number of Democratic-leaning Latino voters in the state.
Senate Bill 14 has been tied up by federal rules or in Federal Court since former Gov. Rick Perry signed it in May 2011. Perry is now U.S. secretary of energy.
Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice joined a legal challenge to SB 14 brought by Congressman Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and others.
The Department of Justice withdrew from the case after President Donald Trump appointed former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general, and Sessions was confirmed by the Senate.
Though the Supreme Court in 2013 threw out Voting Rights Act Section 5 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 SB 14 — experts say that with her finding on SB 14’s discriminatory intent U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos could force Texas back under federal oversight.
Gonzales Ramos did not, however, explicitly state that her order would force Texas back under federal review, merely writing: “The Court holds that plaintiffs have sustained their burden of proof to show that SB 14 was passed, at least in part, with a discriminatory intent in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
The order was widely expected because it tracks a ruling Gonzales Ramos made in October 2014 after an 8-day bench trial that blasted the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature for claiming it enacted SB 14 to prevent voter fraud.
“In the ten years preceding SB 14, only two cases of in-person voter impersonation fraud were prosecuted to a conviction – a period of time in which 20 million votes were cast,” Gonzales Ramos wrote in the October 2014 ruling.
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 identification – 4.5 percent of the registered voters in Texas, according to the case record.
Critics say the Legislature’s inclusion of concealed-handgun permits, but not college IDs, on the list of acceptable IDs, is proof of its ulterior motives.
Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit and the en banc court agreed with Gonzales Ramos last summer that SB 14 has a discriminatory effect on minorities, who typically vote for Democratic candidates.
The Fifth Circuit remanded to Gonzales Ramos to decide whether the Legislature had it in for minority voters.
Before the Justice Department dropped out of the case, it asked Gonzales Ramos to continue it until June 18, the day the Legislature adjourns, to give the Legislature time to pass Senate Bill 5. She refused.
SB 5 would let registered voters who do not have proper photo ID 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, a voting regime that is nearly identical to an interim plan Gonzales Ramos approved for the Nov. 8 elections.
But SB 5 includes a punitive measure, a potential 10-year prison sentence for lying on the affidavit that’s derided by voting-rights advocates as unnecessary because Texas already has a law against perjury.
The Texas Senate approved SB 5 in March and sent it to the state House.
Danielle Lang with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, represents U.S. Rep. Veasey and the other plaintiffs.
She praised Gonzales Ramos for finding a second time that SB 14 violates the Voting Rights Act.
“Today’s ruling is a crucial step in the six-year journey towards justice for Texas voters since this restrictive voter ID law was passed. Judge Ramos was absolutely correct in her judgment that this law was designed to harm minority voters and cannot stand,” Lang said in a statement.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined Texas’ request to review the en banc Fifth Circuit ruling, but Chief Justice John Roberts urged the state to seek another hearing after the case plays out before Gonzales Ramos.
Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the court’s 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder ruling that struck down the Section 5 preclearance requirement for voting changes.
Experts say Roberts will have an ally in new Justice Neil Gorsuch in siding with states that want to roll back voter protections.
Texas is also in the national spotlight for the case of Rosa Maria Ortega, 37, a legal permanent resident and mother of four children, who was sentenced to 8 years in prison followed by almost certain deportation because she voted, in error, in November. Ortega was confused about whether she was able to vote, as was shown by her differing responses to questions on her voter registrations in Dallas and then in Tarrant County. Ortega, who has a sixth-grade education, voted Republican.Follow @cam_langford
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