By Tim Eaton
A divided U.S. Supreme Court said Saturday that the Texas voter identification law should remain in effect for the upcoming election.
A majority of the justices rejected an emergency request from the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups to block the state from requiring voters to produce one of seven forms of photo identification to cast ballots -- considered one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country.
The Supreme Court's order was unsigned, but Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, saying they would have sided with a federal judge in Corpus Christi who overturned the law this month. The dissenting justices also rejected the notion that disallowing the law would confuse Texas voters who will begin going to the polls Monday, the start of early voting. Election Day is Nov. 4.
"The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case 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.
Gerry Hebert and other lawyers representing the lead plaintiffs in the case -- which include U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and the League of United Latin American Citizens -- had filed an emergency application Wednesday to block a Tuesday ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court revived the Texas voter ID law following a ruling by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos that had struck down the law, deeming it unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it disproportionately limits minorities' access to the polls.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office has been defending the law, celebrated the high court's decision.
"The state will continue to defend the voter ID law and remains confident that the district court's misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits," said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott, the Republican front-runner for governor.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, tweeted Saturday: "The disappointing decision by the Supreme Court is 1 more reason it's so important all Texans exercise their right to vote starting Monday."
Chad Dunn, a plaintiffs' lawyer, told the American-Statesman that the law will soon enough be off the books, once a trial on its merits is held at the 5th Circuit in the coming months.
At the end of the day, the federal court system found there was not enough time to protect the voters from SB 14 this election," Dunn said, referring to Senate Bill 14, the 2011 legislation that created the law. "Nevertheless, after two appellate reviews, Texas' effort to undermine the reasoned opinion of the district court has failed. Texas' law is discriminatory, it violates the Constitution, and it is a poll tax -- no court has said differently. The voters have won this case, and it won't be long before they can feel the benefits."
The law, passed for the stated purpose of preventing voter fraud, initially was barred from going into effect because it hadn't received the federal approval needed by states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination. But in June 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that called for the federal approval process, and the law went into effect. It was used in the statewide election last November and in the party primaries and runoffs in the spring.
The attorney general's office argued in the federal trial last month in Corpus Christi that those elections passed without incident, and Republican lawmakers testified via written statements read in court that the law had the support of a majority of Texans. Former state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, testified that he was "unaware of a single voter in the entire state of Texas" who was denied the right to vote.
But plaintiffs' attorneys argued that more than 600,000 eligible Texas voters lacked an acceptable form of ID, many of them African-Americans and Hispanics, groups that traditionally vote Democratic.
The Supreme Court had intervened in three other disputes in recent weeks over Republican-inspired restrictions on voting access. In Wisconsin, the justices blocked a voter ID law from being used in November. In North Carolina and Ohio, the justices allowed limits on same-day registration, early voting and provisional ballots to take or remain in effect.
Ginsburg said the Texas case was different from the clashes in North Carolina and Ohio because a federal judge held a full trial on the Texas election procedures and developed "an extensive record" finding the process discriminated against ballot access.
Acceptable forms of voter ID
--Texas driver's license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety
--Texas Election Identification Certificate issued by DPS
--Texas personal identification card issued by DPS
--Texas concealed handgun license issued by DPS
--U.S. military identification card containing the voter's photograph
--U.S. citizenship certificate containing the voter's photograph
Important voting dates
--First day of early voting: Monday
--Last day to apply for ballot by mail (received, not postmarked): Friday
--Last day of early voting: Oct. 31
--Election Day: Nov. 4
(c)2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas