June 26, 2013

At 3 a.m. local time, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) declared early this morning that Senate Bill 5 — the measure that seeks to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, requires that providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals and mandates that abortion clinics meet the standards of surgical centers — was moot, thanks to “an unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics.”

State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), the principal star in the push to trample this bill, is now a veritable celebrity, heralded by luminaries from Barack Obama to Lena Dunham. Standing in a pair of pink sneakers for nearly 13 hours, longer than it takes to fly from Dallas to Tokyo, Davis held court in the state capitol in Austin long enough to filibuster the bill, the only real impact of which would have been the closure of 37 out of 42 abortion clinics in a state of 26 million people.

For all Texans, Americans, and, for that matter, people the world over who care about women, this was nothing short of a remarkable moment, a picture of grass-roots democracy at its finest. Thanks to Davis and the thousands of supporters who gathered in Austin, Texas women — at least for now — won’t have to travel thousands of miles to reach a clinic in one of the state’s major cities or cross the border into Mexico to seek alternative care.

Celebrations aside, however, the truth is that Davis’s efforts are just the beginning of what’s sure to be an uphill battle to stop SB5 for good. In the heat of the moment surrounding Davis’s filibuster yesterday, nobody seemed to any pay attention to the largest of the many elephants in the room: the impact that the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, announced yesterday morning, is almost sure to have on the politics of the Lone Star State, especially on lawmakers like Davis.

After all, the verdict in the Shelby case, which invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, ultimately means, as Richard Hasen has pointed out in The New York Times, that states can go ahead with enacting the voting laws they attempted to pass before the election in November. Unsurprisingly, Texas has proposed one of the strictest voter identification requirements on the table and is now free to push forward with redistricting along any lines that suit the GOP’s legislative agenda, racial or otherwise. Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, announced almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s announcement that Texas would go ahead with the voter ID law, and it probably won’t be long before the state attempts to redraw the districts yet again.

Interestingly enough, in the map Texas unsuccessfully tried to adopt in 2011, Republicans labored to make Davis’s particular district — District 10, which includes most of Fort Worth — a Republican one. A federal court blocked that initiative on the grounds of the discriminatory intent it perceived against minority voters, a clear application of the Voting Rights Act and, specifically, its fifth section, which requires states, including Texas, with a history of racism at the polls to apply for “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department before enacting any change to voting procedure. Without Section 4, which provided the calculus to determine where pre-clearance would be necessary, Section 5 is practically dead in the wake of yesterday’s decision. In short, Texas Republicans could now create, without federal obstacles, a voting scheme in which lawmakers like Davis don’t get re-elected.

Whether or not there will be a second special session to vote on SB5 again, and  Dewhurst suggested there would be, the issue is what will happen to advocates like Davis in the near future. To be sure, what Wendy Davis won yesterday is beyond significant, if only to show that it’s actually possible to fight back against a systematic attempt to dismantle abortion rights and, at least for the moment, triumph. But after yesterday’s Voting Rights Act decision, the grim reality is that Davis’s victory is temporary at best, ephemeral at worst.