By Tim Eaton

Texas' strict voter identification law violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act through its discriminatory effects, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A day ahead of the 50th anniversary of the historic law signed in 1965, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a complicated 49-page opinion that affirmed part of a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi, rejected another piece of it and sent other portions back to the lower court for further review.

The mixed opinion created some ambiguity for Texas voters, whose next opportunity to cast ballots comes in November.

Proponents are saying that a temporary order by U.S. Supreme Court that allowed the voter ID law to be enforced in elections last year should still apply, and voters should continue to follow the law while the case moves through the legal process.

Opponents of the law, conversely, believe that a federal judge will offer guidance for interim election procedures and likely prevent the state from enforcing one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country.

An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is all but certain, but in the meantime, the state could ask the full 5th Circuit to review the case.

The case, Veasey v. Abbott, carries the names of U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Fort Worth and the primary plaintiff in the case, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is the defendant.

Abbott responded Wednesday to the ruling by reiterating his often-stated belief that the state's voter ID law is needed to prevent voter fraud and "cheating at the ballot box."

"Texas will continue to fight for its voter ID requirement to ensure the integrity of elections in the Lone Star State," he said in a statement.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton didn't specify in a statement what he would do next.

"Today's ruling was a victory on the fundamental question of Texas' right to protect the integrity of our elections and the state's common sense Voter ID law remains in effect," he said. "I'm particularly pleased the panel saw through and rejected the plaintiffs' claim that our law constituted a 'poll tax.'"

Upon receiving word of the ruling, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, asked Texas' GOP leaders "to do the right thing for once" and not appeal the panel's decision.

"Near last in the country in voter turnout, Texas should be working to get more folks to the polls -- not to turn away legal, legitimate voters," he said.

Chad Dunn, an attorney for the lead plaintiff, celebrated the ruling.

"This is an enormous victory for voters all around Texas," Dunn said. "When one of the most conservative courts in the country agrees that Texas' voter ID law is discriminatory, it goes to show how powerful and overwhelming the evidence is."

The mixed decision

U.S. 5th Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes, an appointee of President George W. Bush and one of the more conservative members, wrote the opinion released Wednesday.

In its ruling, the 5th Circuit panel overturned Ramos' judgment that Texas voter ID law was created with a racially discriminatory purpose. But the judges gave Ramos another crack at her reasoning. They sent the issue back to her to reconsider the plaintiffs' claims that the law was written with a discriminatory purpose, but this time she should use "the proper legal standards and evidence," the panel said.

The panel also tossed out Ramos' holding that Texas' voter ID law amounts to a poll tax, a reference to the now-illegal practice of southern states to disenfranchise African-American voters.

But, perhaps most significantly, the panel affirmed the district court's finding that Texas' voter ID law's discriminatory effects violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act -- which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, skin color and ethnicity.

The panel also directed Ramos to consider an "appropriate remedy."

The panel offered some specific ideas to Ramos. The judges suggested that voter registration cards could qualify as acceptable forms of identification or that voters without valid ID could cast a ballot by signing an affidavit.

Ramos also could issue a ruling that would force Texas to get federal approval before changing election laws, if she reaffirms discriminatory intent.

Back in 2014, Ramos said she would wait until the 5th Circuit ruled before she decided whether Texas should be put back under federal oversight, using the so-called bail-in provision of the Voting Rights Act, to require the federal government to approve any changes the state makes to voting laws or procedures through a process called "preclearance."

Could it reach Supreme Court?

The Texas voter ID battle began in 2011 when the GOP-controlled Legislature passed Senate Bill 14. It required one of seven forms of government-issued identification to cast ballots.

At the time, the law needed preclearance. But two years later, the Supreme Court gutted the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required such federal oversight. The high court's decision paved the way for the voter ID law to be immediately enacted.

Civil rights groups -- later joined by the Justice Department -- responded with a lawsuit to block the law. The case was heard by Ramos, an appointee of President Barack Obama, and she ruled in favor of Veasey in October 2014.

At the time, she wrote in her ruling: "The Court holds that SB 14 creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose." She also ruled that the law "constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax."

Following Ramos' ruling, Abbott, then the Texas attorney general, successfully petitioned for a temporary order from the Supreme Court to allow the law to be in effect for the general election last November. Abbott also appealed the ruling to the 5th Circuit.

Now, after the ruling of the 5th Circuit's three-judge panel, the case can be appealed to the full 5th Circuit or directly to the Supreme Court.

Texas is further along the appellate process than any other state with an active voter ID law challenge, meaning the state's law is most likely to land at the Supreme Court.

(c)2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas