The Supreme Court on Friday declined to block the use of Texas’s voter-ID law in the November elections but indicated it is open to that possibility if a lower court has not settled the matter by midsummer.
Civil rights groups and the Obama administration have been fighting Texas SB 14, the strictest voter-ID law in the nation, since it was passed in May 2011. They initially charged that it could disenfranchise 600,000 voters who lacked necessary identification and that the state had made it too difficult for those people to acquire it.
Every judge who has examined the law has found it discriminatory. But it has been used in recent elections because courts have refused to block it until there is a final legal ruling on its legitimacy.
The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is scheduled to consider the law May 24.
The Supreme Court’s order puts pressure on that lower court to make a decision quickly.
“The Court recognizes the time constraints the parties confront in light of the scheduled elections in November, 2016,” the order said. “If, on or before July 20, 2016, the Court of Appeals has neither issued an opinion on the merits of the case nor issued an order vacating or modifying the current stay order, an aggrieved party may seek interim relief from this Court by filing an appropriate application.”
The Supreme Court’s action was the first in what could be a busy summer and fall for the justices in deciding which rules will govern the November elections.
A federal judge in North Carolina this week upheld a comprehensive law that changed voting regulations in that state. Challengers of that law, similar to the Texas plaintiffs, have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, and that court has scheduled an expedited review.
The Supreme Court’s order was a bit of good news for challengers of the Texas law, who so far have won the battles but lost the war.
“Every judge who has considered SB 14 has agreed that SB 14 has an impermissible discriminatory effect on minority voters,” the plaintiffs’ application to the Supreme Court stated.
They said that burdens “were built into the law, which sharply reduced the number and location of ID-issuing offices by replacing voter registration offices (one or more in every county) with the far fewer offices of the Department of Public Safety (nonexistent in many counties).”
Texas countered in its brief to the Supreme Court that the results of elections conducted under the law’s restrictions showed that opponents were wrong.
“Plaintiffs submitted no evidence of depressed voter turnout or registration — much less that any such effect on voting was caused by SB14,” the state said in its brief.
“Texas enacted a common-sense law to provide simple protections to the integrity of our elections and the democratic process in our state,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “We appreciate the Supreme Court allowing the law to remain in effect at this time and look forward to defending the merits of our case in front of the entire Fifth Circuit next month.”
The groups had told the court that it needed to act immediately, even though the presidential election is months away.
“The process of returning the case to the district court, fashioning an interim remedy, and implementing that relief in time for the November 2016 election means that time is of the essence and further delay, even of two or three months, is perilous to obtaining any relief for the November 2016 election,” they said.
They added that Texas said it begins the process of preparing for the general election in June.
The case has a tortured legal past.
Even before 2011, Texas required voters to show some identification. But the bill, signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry (R), restricted the kinds of ID accepted, leading to charges that it was aimed at making voting harder for specific groups. Permits to carry concealed handguns sufficed, for instance, but college IDs did not.
At the time, Texas, along with some other states, was covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which meant that federal officials or judges had to approve any changes to election laws that might hurt minorities. But the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, threw out Congress’s designation of those states.
The groups and the Obama administration then challenged the Texas law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids changes that discriminate against minorities.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos struck down the law in October 2014. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit lifted the stay Ramos had issued forbidding the law to be used in the November 2014 elections.
The Supreme Court agreed with that action, over the strong dissents of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Ginsburg stayed up all night to write a blistering dissent that was issued before dawn on the weekend before early voting began in Texas.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections . . . is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
Last August, a panel of the 5th Circuit court ruled unanimously that the law would have a discriminatory effect, although it did not agree with some of Ramos’s more dramatic findings.
Just last month, the legal wrangling continued. The full 5th Circuit said it would review the panel’s decision and set the May hearing date.