The Trump Administration on Monday moved to abandon the effort, begun by the Obama administration and civil rights advocates more than three years ago, to prove that the nation’s strictest voter ID law is unconstitutional. The Texas law, though, will continue to face that challenge because the rights groups plan to continue it before a federal trial judge in Corpus Christi. A hearing on the constitutional question is set for tomorrow.
The federal government’s change of position was a new sign that the civil rights agenda has undergone a major shift with the election victory of President Donald Trump. Although state laws limiting voting rights are being challenged across the nation, the Texas law had gained prominence because of its sweeping breadth. It imposed strict limits on the kinds of photo ID that the challengers argued were simply not available to hundreds of thousands of minority citizens in Texas.
The new administration, in papers due to be filed later today in Corpus Christi, contended that it was voluntarily forfeiting its constitutional claim because the Texas legislature is now considering an alternative measure on voter identification. The situation in the pending case, the motion to dismiss said, is now “evolving” with the legislature now having “the opportunity to rectify any alleged infirmities with its voter identification law.”
The Texas law has been ruled to be illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the Supreme Court refused last month to block that decision, although it apparently did so on the premise that the appeal by Texas state officials was premature in a procedural sense. Texas could challenge that aspect of the case in a new appeal, after the Texas trial judge – Nelva Gonzales Ramos — rules on the still-open constitutional question. If she rules that the law is unconstitutional, that issue, too, could return to the Supreme Court, although such a new appeal might be affected if the state legislature actually amends the law to create an exception to the photo ID requirement for poor people, which could mainly benefit minority voters.
A somewhat similar exception was used, by agreement of both sides in the case, at the general election last November.
Although that was only an interim measure, state officials have said that the new proposal now before the legislature is similar and has significant support among legislators and state government officials.
In the papers prepared for court filing, the Trump Administration lawyers based their argument for dismissing their claim of unconstitutionality not upon a changed view about that question, but rather relied upon states’ rights arguments and the Fifth Circuit’s suggestion that the state legislature should have the opportunity to enact a less restrictive law that might satisfy constitutional requirements.
It is thus unclear whether, or even if, the Texas case will return to the Supreme Court, and in what form.
The Supreme Court now has pending an appeal by North Carolina officials seeking revival of a photo ID law for voters along with several other limits on voting rights, which were struck down last summer by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The state’s new governor and attorney general have asked the Supreme Court to let them withdraw that case, but that request is now immersed in a dispute over which officials in state government speak for the state in court. State legislative leaders want to press on with the appeal.
The Trump Administration, under the new vice president, Michael Pence, is now assembling a government task force to investigate claims by President Trump and other White House officials of voter fraud in recent elections nationwide.
Civil rights groups have expressed fears that this new investigation with provide an incentive to state legislatures to adopt new restrictions on voters’ rights. Those groups insist that voter identification fraud is an isolated problem, if it exists at all.
(This post also appears at Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.)