By James Barragán
A federal judge ruled Monday for the second time that Texas' 2011 voter identification law was filed with discriminatory intent -- another blow to the state in a six-year legal battle over the legislation.
Last July, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law discriminated against Latinos and other minorities but made no ruling on whether it was intended to be discriminatory. It sent the case back down to a district court to reconsider that question. On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos ruled that it was.
The 10-page ruling could land Texas back on the list of states that need approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing its election laws. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling took Texas off that list.
In her opinion, Ramos said plaintiffs had proved that "a discriminatory intent was at least one of the substantial or motivating factors" behind the passage of the law and that it had been up to the state to prove it would have passed without its discriminatory purpose.
"The State has not met its burden," Ramos wrote. "Therefore, this Court holds, again, that SB 14 was passed with a discriminatory purpose."
The state's voter ID law is considered to be one of the strictest in the country. It requires people to provide one of seven state-approved photo IDs in order to cast their ballot. That list includes handgun licenses, but not student IDs -- which opponents argue benefits one group of voters while disenfranchising minorities and younger voters.
Plaintiffs in the case, including voting rights advocates and minority Democratic lawmakers, praised the court's ruling.
"Today's ruling is a crucial step in the six-year journey towards justice for Texas voters since this restrictive voter ID law was passed," Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, which represents voters in the case, said in a written statement.
"Judge Ramos was absolutely correct in her judgment that this law was designed to harm minority voters and cannot stand," Lang said. "SB 14 was expertly crafted to harm minority voters in order to minimize their voice just as their political power was growing. Legislators must respond to their electorate, not silence their voters."
Attorney General Ken Paxton's office could not be reached for comment, but his office is almost certain to appeal the ruling.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement that the court confirmed that "Texas Republicans intentionally designed their Voter ID law to attack the sacred voting rights of Texans."
"It is disgusting and shameful that Republicans have worked so hard to keep Texas' diverse new majority away from the polls," Hinojosa said. "Sadly, the damage has been done. For the past several years, Texas Republicans stripped over 600,000 Texans of their right to vote through the discriminatory Voter ID law."
Hinojosa said Texans deserve more than "rigged elections" and that his party will continue fighting for a fair election system.
In her ruling, Ramos said the Legislature had rejected changes to the bill that would have made it less discriminatory such as allowing allowing "additional types of photo identification , a more liberal policy on expired documents, easier voter registration procedures, reduced costs for obtaining necessary ID, and more voter education regarding the requirements."
"This is some evidence of a pattern, unexplainable on grounds other than race, which emerges from the effect of the state action even when the governing legislation appears neutral on its face," the judge wrote.
The court also found the Legislature "departed from normal practices" in passing the law. The order said lawmakers used "extraordinary procedural tactics to rush SB 14 through without the usual committee analysis, debate, and substantive consideration of amendments."
In her order, Ramos was not convinced by the state's argument that the law's main goal was to prevent voter fraud.
"The evidence shows a tenuous relationship between those rationales and the actual terms of the bill," she wrote, adding that the bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is a much bigger problem.
Ramos also said the law was "unduly strict." She pointed out that many photo IDs accepted by other states were not included in Texas' bill, that the period for which expired IDs could be used in Texas was shorter and that the punishments for breaking the law in Texas were heavier.
"The State did not demonstrate that these features of SB 14 were necessarily consistent with its alleged interest in preventing voter fraud or increasing confidence in the electoral system," she wrote.
The court's ruling came the same day that the House Elections Committee was scheduled to hear testimony on a bill aimed at fixing the issues with the current law. Those bills are being considered after a district court ordered changes to the law in the run-up to the November elections.
Last month, the Senate passed a bill identical to the one being considered in the House. Democrats in that chamber opposed the bill, arguing it did not go far enough to remedy the issues the court had found.
The bill would allow voters who do not have an approved form of photo ID to cast a ballot if they produced supporting documents that listed their name. Those documents could be bank statements, utility bills, government checks or work paychecks. Voters also would be required to sign a "declaration of impediment" citing why they could not obtain a state-approved ID.
The bill would make lying on the "declaration of impediment" a third-degree felony, which is punishable by two to 10 years in prison.
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