The Dallas Morning News

Court: Law’s intent biased

Judge rules for second time that legislatio­n disfavors minorities

- By JAMES BARRAGAN Austin Bureau jbarragan@dallasnews.com

A federal judge ruled Monday for the second time that Texas’ 2011 voter identifica­tion law was filed with discrimina­tory intent — another blow to the state in a six-year legal battle over the legislatio­n.

Last July, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law discrimina­ted against Latinos and other minorities but made no ruling on whether it was intended to be discrimina­tory. It sent the case back to district court to reconsider that question. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos ruled that it was.

The 10-page ruling could land Texas back on the list of states that need approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing its election laws. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court

ruling took Texas off that list.

In her opinion, Ramos said plaintiffs had proved that “a discrimina­tory intent was at least one of the substantia­l or motivating factors” behind the passage of the law and that it had been up to the state to prove it would have passed without its discrimina­tory purpose.

“The state has not met its burden,” Ramos wrote. “Therefore, this court holds, again, that SB 14 was passed with a discrimina­tory purpose.”

The state’s voter ID law is considered to be one of the strictest in the country. It requires people to provide one of seven state-approved photo IDs in order to cast their ballot. That list includes handgun licenses but not student IDs — which opponents argue benefits one group of voters while disenfranc­hising minorities and younger voters.

Plaintiffs’ praise

Plaintiffs in the case, including voting rights advocates and minority Democratic lawmakers, praised the court’s ruling.

“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,” Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, which represents voters in the case, said in a written statement.

“Judge Ramos was absolutely correct in her judgment that this law was designed to harm minority voters and cannot stand,” Lang said. “SB 14 was expertly crafted to harm minority voters in order to minimize their voice just as their political power was growing. Legislator­s must respond to their electorate, not silence their voters.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spokesman Marc Rylander remarked, “We’re disappoint­ed and will seek review of this ruling at the appropriat­e time.”

Paxton’s office is almost certain to appeal the ruling.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement that the court confirmed that “Texas Republican­s intentiona­lly designed their voter ID law to attack the sacred voting rights of Texans.”

“It is disgusting and shameful that Republican­s have worked so hard to keep Texas’ diverse new majority away from the polls,” Hinojosa said. “Sadly, the damage has been done. For the past several years, Texas Republican­s stripped over 600,000 Texans of their right to vote through the discrimina­tory voter ID law.”

Hinojosa said Texans deserve more than “rigged elections” and said his party will continue fighting for a fair election system.

In her ruling, Ramos said the Legislatur­e had rejected changes to the bill that would have made it less discrimina­tory, such as allowing allowing “additional types of photo identifica­tion, a more liberal policy on expired documents, easier voter registrati­on procedures, reduced costs for obtaining necessary ID, and more voter education regarding the requiremen­ts.”

“This is some evidence of a pattern, unexplaina­ble on grounds other than race, which emerges from the effect of the state action even when the governing legislatio­n appears neutral on its face,” the judge wrote.

The court also found the Legislatur­e “departed from normal practices” in passing the law. The order said lawmakers used “extraordin­ary procedural tactics to rush SB 14 through without the usual committee analysis, debate and substantiv­e considerat­ion of amendments.”

Ramos was not convinced by the state’s argument that the law’s main goal was to prevent voter fraud.

“The evidence shows a tenuous relationsh­ip between those rationales and the actual terms of the bill,” she wrote, saying the bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is a much bigger problem.

‘Unduly strict’

Ramos also said the law was “unduly strict.” She pointed out that many photo IDs accepted by other states were not included in Texas’ bill, that the period for which expired IDs could be used in Texas was shorter and that the punishment­s for breaking the law in Texas were heavier.

“The state did not demonstrat­e that these features of SB 14 were necessaril­y consistent with its alleged interest in preventing voter fraud or increasing confidence in the electoral system,” she wrote.

The court’s ruling came the same day that the House Elections Committee was scheduled to hear testimony on a bill aimed at fixing the issues with the current law. Those bills are being considered after a district court ordered changes to the law in the runup to the November elections.

Last month, the Senate passed a bill identical to the one being considered in the House. Democrats in that chamber opposed the bill, arguing it did not go far enough to remedy the issues the court had found.

The bill would allow voters who do not have an approved form of photo ID to cast a ballot if they produced supporting documents that listed their name. Those documents could be bank statements, utility bills, government checks or work paychecks. Voters also would be required to sign a “declaratio­n of impediment” citing why they could not obtain a state-approved ID.

The bill would make lying on the declaratio­n of impediment a thirddegre­e felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

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