By Jordan Rudner
The Department of Justice under President Donald Trump will support Texas officials' claim that the state's voter identification law did not specifically target minority voters, retreating from the federal government's previous stance that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated when crafting the law.
The law's opponents were notified of the switch one day before the question of discriminatory intent is set to be argued in federal court, according to officials at the Campaign Legal Center.
"The change in the administration is the only explanation for this change [in position], and it's outrageous," said Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, which is one of the organizations challenging the voter ID law in court. "For the department of justice to change its position after six years, when none of the facts have changed, is appalling."
The 2011 law required that voters present one of seven forms of government identification in order to cast a ballot. Acceptable IDs included driver's' licenses, handgun licenses issued by the state's Department of Public Safety, election ID certificates or personal ID cards issued by DPS, military IDs, citizenship certificates, or passports.
The law's most fervent supporters, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have long argued that those voter ID requirements were necessary for preventing voter fraud. But the law's opponents point to studies that show Hispanic and black voters are disproportionately less likely to have one of the seven forms of ID that the law was written to accept.
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, called the law "the clearest manifestation of modern-day voter suppression tactics," and challenged the law in court, along with several other voting rights organizations. The Obama administration also opposed the law.
Last summer, judges on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the law was discriminatory but said they could not come to a conclusion on whether the Legislature had intentionally discriminated when writing the law. They sent the question of discriminatory intent back to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi.
Ramos is set to hear arguments on the question of discriminatory intent tomorrow morning.
Although the Department of Justice, now led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has yet to issue a formal court filing about its change in position, this is not the only change the adminstration has made on the voter ID argument.
Last year, Texas officials asked the court to delay hearings on how the voter ID law could be fixed, arguing that the issue might be addressed during Texas' current legislative session. The Obama administration opposed the delay, arguing that there was no firm guarantee a legislative fix was forthcoming.
Earlier this month, when Texas officials asked again whether the court would postpone its efforts to address the aspects of the voter ID law that had been deemed unconstitutional, the Trump administration agreed that the case should be postponed.
"Legislatures should have the first chance to address issues under the Voting Rights Act whenever possible," officials wrote in a brief filed on behalf of Texas officials and the U.S. government. "It is thus appropriate for this Court to [postpone] the hearing until the Texas legislature has had an opportunity to act."
Ramos denied the request to delay proceedings.
On Monday, Lang said the plaintiffs in the case will continue to fight, even though they've lost the support of the federal government.
"Private plaintiffs will continue to pursue justice in this matter," she said.
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