A federal appeals panel on Friday OK’d state lawmakers’ efforts to rewrite Texas’ embattled voter ID law to address discriminatory faults previously identified by the courts.
On a 2-1 vote, a three-panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's ruling that tossed out the state’s revisions through Senate Bill 5, saying the changes did not absolve Texas lawmakers from responsibility for discriminating against voters of color when they crafted one of the nation's strictest voter ID laws in 2011.
According to the panel, the Legislature had “succeeded in its goal” of addressing flaws in the voter ID law.
The 5th Circuit panel's ruling is a major victory for the state after years of losses in an almost seven-year legal battle over its restrictions on what forms of identification are accepted at the polls.
The battle dates back to 2011, when lawmakers first passed the voter ID restrictions. A separate three-judge panel and then the full 5th Circuit — which is considered to be among the country's most conservative appellate courts — previously agreed with U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos that the 2011 law disproportionately burdened voters of color who are less likely to have one of the seven forms of identification the state required them to show at the polls.
But the appeals court asked Ramos, of Corpus Christi, to reconsider her previous ruling that lawmakers discriminated on purpose because of "infirm" evidence she cited. After reconsidering the case, Ramos came to the same conclusion last April.
Lawmakers worked to revise the voter ID law last year by passing SB 5, which mostly followed the lead of temporary voter ID rules Ramos put in place for the 2016 elections in an effort to ease the state’s requirements. But last August, Ramos tossed the state's revised voter ID law, saying it didn't do enough to ameliorate the "discriminatory features" of the old law.
The Texas attorney general's office, which is representing the state in court, appealed those findings, refuting that lawmakers purposefully discriminated and arguing that any findings of intentional discrimination should be nixed because lawmakers last year rewrote the voter ID law to address the faults previously identified by the courts.
"The 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," Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a Friday statement.
The 5th Circuit panel on Friday sided with the state despite voting and civil rights groups' efforts to prove the law is a discriminatory and unconstitutional. The appeals court's ruling also dealt a blow to the groups' efforts to persuade the courts to place Texas back under federal oversight of its election laws. The lower court's finding of intentional discrimination — key to those efforts — demonstrated why voters of color still need judicial protection, they argued.
On Friday, some of the challengers said they were “undeterred” by the 5th Circuit’s decision and vowed to continue fighting discriminatory laws.
“Our view today is the same as it has been since the first day of this litigation — Texas’ voter ID law is discriminatory,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
The plaintiffs can still appeal the ruling. They can ask the full 5th Circuit to reconsider the case or they can look to the U.S. Supreme Court for relief.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.