Texas’ photo voter ID law is nondiscriminatory and must be reinstated, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state’s revised voter ID law in a split decision, saying the lower court was guilty of “abuse of discretion” when it invalidated the measure.
The appellate court reversed District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’ finding of unconstitutional discrimination. It also shut down plaintiffs’ push to subject Texas to federal “preclearance” under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act:
[The district court’s] injunction and order far exceed the scope of the actual violations found by the court. Under the circumstances of this case, the court had no legal or factual basis to invalidate SB 5, and its contemplation of Section 3(c) relief accordingly fails as well. The remedial order constitutes an abuse of discretion.
In contrast, until a plaintiff pleads and proves some constitutional or statutory infirmity in SB 5, that law must be reinstated, and it affords a generous, tailored remedy for the actual violations found.
The law in question, Senate Bill 5, was enacted last year as a legislative fix to Senate Bill 14, the state’s original photo voter ID law passed in 2011. Ramos, an Obama appointee, previously ruled SB 14 not only had a discriminatory effect on indigent minority voters, but was passed with a legislative intent to discriminate against protected classes of voters.
SB 5 remedied the disparate racial impact of the voter ID law by offering a “declaration of reasonable impediment” to voters without an acceptable form of photo identification. Under the revised law, voters can sign a declaration, show one of a wide range of non-photo IDs, and cast a regular ballot.
But Ramos struck down SB 5 as well, ruling last August that it too was intentionally discriminatory.
Allegations of intentional racial discrimination are at the heart of the plaintiffs’ case. Lawyers for the Democrats and Democrat-aligned groups challenging the law needed to convince the appellate court that Ramos was correct in order to make a case for putting Texas back under federal preclearance — whereby every change to the state’s voting laws and practices must be pre-approved by the federal government. That requires a finding of intentional discrimination.
In their arguments before the 5th Circuit last December, plaintiffs failed to show Ramos was right.
Judge Edith Jones wrote for the majority (citations omitted):
The court also erred in apparently presuming, without proof, that any invidious intent behind SB 14 necessarily carried over to and fatally infected SB 5. … The court here overlooked SB 5’s improvements for disadvantaged minority voters and neither sought evidence on nor made any finding that the Texas legislature in 2017 intentionally discriminated when enacting SB 5. …
Because the court misapplied the governing legal standards, its remedial order represents an abuse of discretion. Moreover, the court declined to make any finding on whether SB 5 has a discriminatory intent or purpose. To the contrary, all of the evidence supports that SB 5 was designed to remedy every defect claimed in the Plaintiffs’ evidence and to supply indigent voter protections recommended by this court’s remand order.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Friday that the appellate court “rightly recognized that when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5 last session, it complied with every change the 5th Circuit ordered to the original voter ID law.”
“Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy. The revised voter ID law removes any burden on voters who cannot obtain a photo ID,” Paxton added.
The appellate court noted that plaintiffs may file a new challenge to SB 5 “and bear the burden of proof, if the promise of the law to remedy disparate impact on indigent minority voters is not fulfilled.”
Plaintiffs are expected to appeal this case to the U.S. Supreme Court.