In an important win for opponents of voter ID laws, a federal judge in Texas permanently blocked the state from enforcing its laws addressing the topic — despite the Justice Department's decision to stop backing the challenge to the law earlier this year.
State officials, however, have already said they will appeal — meaning the case, which began in 2013, will continue onward.
US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos issued a permanent injunction on Wednesday stopping Texas from enforcing its voter ID law or the more recent amendments to that law, finding that the changes made to the initial law were not enough to eliminate the law's discriminatory purpose or effects.
The litigation over Texas's voter ID law, SB 14, has resulted in courts repeatedly finding that the law was enacted with discriminatory purpose and/or discriminatory effects, but questions about the standards used to examine the legal questions and changes to the law have kept the issue in the courts.
Most recently, June amendments to the law — contained in SB 5 — led Texas to argue that a court decision against the law from earlier this year should be reconsidered.
The judge hearing the case disagreed.
"[A] large part of what makes SB 14 discriminatory—placing a disproportionate burden on Hispanics and African- Americans through the selection of qualified photo IDs—remains essentially unchanged in SB 5," Ramos wrote.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Wednesday's ruling "outrageous" and said the state will appeal the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit — where the case has been previously. [Update: On Thursday, the state asked Ramos to put her ruling on hold pending the state's appeal.]
The Justice Department, which had backed the challengers to the law under the Obama administration, has backed Texas under the Trump administration — arguing in a July court filing that SB 5 "fully remedies any discriminatory effect in Texas's voter ID law."
In Wednesday's ruling, Ramos — in issuing the permanent injunction — held that SB 14 violates the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, echoing earlier rulings. Ramos had found that "several features of SB 14 ... alone or in combination unconstitutionally discriminate against African-Americans and Hispanics with respect to the right to vote," categorized as involving the type of ID able to be used, obstacles to obtaining an ID, exemptions, alternative proof for provisional voting, and education.
Texas had argued that the plaintiffs challenging SB 14 had not proven that changes within SB 5 burden minority voters, but Ramos ruled that it was the state that must prove that SB 5 remedies the Voting Rights Act violation found against the initial voter ID law.
In assessing whether the state met its burden, Ramos examined whether she believed SB 5 addressed the discriminatory problems of the five categories.
The ruling, however, focused on Texas's argument that SB 5's inclusion of a Declaration of Reasonable Impediment (DRI) permanently alleviated the issues the court had with SB 14. A DRI provision had been implemented as an interim remedy in the case in advance of the 2016 presidential election, allowing voters to fill out a form and cast a ballot (not a provisional ballot) if they were registered but lacked ID.
Ramos concluded that "the interim remedy [of the DRI] was never intended to be the final remedy and it did not address the discriminatory purpose finding. Additionally, SB 5 imposes some material departures from the interim remedy." Specifically, Ramos highlighted the associated perjury penalty under SB 5, the removal of an "other" explanation section in the DRI allowing voters to describe in their own words why they lacked a photo ID, and the possibility that these two distinctions could lead to voter intimidation.
Ramos went through the other categories as well, finding the changes insufficient to address the Voting Rights Act violations found in SB 14.
"SB 5 does not meaningfully expand the types of photo IDs that can qualify," Ramos wrote, "even though the Court was clearly critical of Texas having the most restrictive list in the country."
Similarly, Ramos found that "the provision for mobile EIC units does not appreciably ameliorate the discriminatory effects or purpose of SB 14 with respect to the obstacles to obtaining qualified photo ID."
"[T]he Court noted that SB 14’s sea change in the requirements for voting could not be accomplished in a fair and effective manner without widespread education for voters and training for poll workers," Ramos wrote, noting that the appeals court had said such education was necessary. "Yet SB 5 does not address this issue at all."
Although Ramos accepted that this addressed earlier SB 14 concerns, "its amelioration is dependent upon the DRI procedure, which has its own limitations."
In conclusion, Ramos wrote, "Not one of the discriminatory features of SB 14 is fully ameliorated by the terms of SB 5." Texas officials, she concluded, "have not shown that SB 5, together with SB 14, constitutes a constitutional and legally valid plan."
While the case was brought by local parties and is, at base, a Texas issue, the national overlay — of President Trump's and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' politics — could become increasingly relevant on appeal, at the 5th Circuit or at the US Supreme Court.
The Justice Department reversed the position it held during the Obama administration beginning in February, when it stopped backing the challengers to the voter ID law once Sessions became attorney general. In a late February filing, the department dismissed the claim it had been pursuing against the law. As the case proceeded, the department sided fully with Texas, arguing that the discriminatory purpose and effects had been addressed by SB 5.