Meeting a Supreme Court deadline to act, a federal appeals court on Wednesday undercut most of Texas’ five-year-old law requiring photo IDs to vote, calling it the “strictest in the nation.” In addition, the same court raised at least the prospect that the state of Texas could lose its right to pass new election laws without federal supervision, after this fall’s election.
The 203-page decision, a widely splintered result from the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, came out on the very day that the Supreme Court in April had set as the point for the lower court to make up its mind, or face the prospect of having the Texas law put on hold by the Justices.
In the wake of the ruling by the 15 judges of the Fifth Circuit, announced in eight separate opinions, the case of Veasey v. Abbott is now due to return to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi, who originally struck down the photo ID law in October 2014, finding that it discriminated against the poor, and against black and Latino voters.
Under Wednesday’s ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court, the trial judge is now under two specific orders:
First, she is to work out — in time for the November elections — remedies for the violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section outlaws changes in voting laws that have the effect of limiting the voting rights of minorities, even if they were not specifically intended to do so. Among other suggestions she is to consider is to grant an exemption for those who simply cannot afford to pay for the documents that the law specifies as necessary.
If, in the meantime, the legislature is called back into special session and fixes the Section 2 violation, Judge Gonzales Ramos is to take that into account, while still making sure that some remedy is in place by election day, November 8.
The judge’s remedy under this part of her assignment would not allow her to nullify all of the photo ID requirement. For those who can obtain or already have the kind of IDs that the law requires, they must produce them in order to vote, the main opinion stressed.
Second, the judge is to reconsider the part of her 2014 ruling that the photo ID law was actually passed by the state legislature with the specific intent to discriminate against minorities in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The lead opinion in the case, spelling out the views of seven of the 15 judges, said the judge had reached too far back into Texas history to find discrimination based on race and had relied too heavily upon claims of bias that opponents of the law had made about its sponsors. (Many of the sponsors, on the advice of their lawyers, specifically avoided talking about the potential racial impact of the law.)
Even so, that opinion — plus the opinions of two judges who would have preferred a ruling that discriminatory purpose has already been proven — cited considerable evidence that bias was, indeed, the main motivating factor for the 2011 law. The trial judge is to decide that question without gathering new factual evidence.
If Judge Gonzales Ramos were now to newly find discrimination, under the terms of the Circuit Court’s order, no part of the 2011 could survive. A law passed with bias as the motive would be unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, and none of it could be enforced.
The more significant potential impact of a finding of discriminatory intent, however, could be the most drastic remedy that the Voting Rights Act currently provides: Texas could be put back under the Act’s pre-clearance requirement, under Section 3. That would mean that the state could adopt absolutely no new election law or method if the U.S. attorney general objected, and then only if the attorney general could be persuaded that the law or voting change would not discriminate, either on purpose or in its practical effect.
Texas formerly was under a pre-clearance requirement, as were some or parts of other states, mainly but not solely in the South, under the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5. But the Supreme Court made that requirement unenforceable in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down the formula that Congress used to decide which states or local governments had to get election changes pre-cleared in Washington. That ruling, however, did not affect the potential pre-clearance requirement available under Section 2, which applies nationwide.
Within hours of the Shelby County decision, Texas began enforcing its photo ID requirement for voters (the law is popularly known as “SB 14”). Since then, the law has been used in four elections in Texas, including this year’s primary election in May, because lower courts and the Supreme Court have allowed it to go into effect even while under court challenge from the Justice Department, minority voters, and civil rights groups.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the Circuit Court specified that the Corpus Christi trial judge is to give priority first to sorting out the narrower remedies for the Section 2, discriminatory effect violation. Those remedies must be in place in time for the state, sometime in October, to make plans for the November 8 election, the Circuit Court specified.
If the judge does once again find discriminatory intent, and moves ahead to fashion remedies for that, those remedies cannot be put into effect until after the November election, according to the decision.
The Circuit Court conceded the point of the challengers, that SB 14 is the strictest voter ID law in the nation. The law has a specific list of the kind of official IDs that must be presented, makes it difficult or — for the poor — costly to obtain any of them, and it makes only the narrowest exceptions, even in hardship cases. The Circuit Court’s main opinion credited the claim that SB 14 has the effect of keeping some 600,000 Texas voters from being able to cast ballots.
Because the ruling is final on the question of the illegality of the photo ID law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the state presumably could attempt to challenge that in the Supreme Court now. However, such an appeal might await the next step on that — the remedy that the trial judge now imposes. The Circuit Court conceded that there was a possibility that it could be drawn into the case again after the trial judge rules.
The challengers conceivably could try to get the Supreme Court to review what the Circuit Court did in overturning Judge Gonzales Ramos on discriminatory intent, but also could await her further ruling and any remedies she imposed, if dissatisfied at that point.
The ruling emerged amid what one of the dissenting judges said was a “gravely fractured” result, with “no majority opinion, but only a plurality opinion that draws six separate dissenting opinions and a special concurrence.”
Here, in some detail, is what the Circuit Court actually did:
First, the plurality opinion — that is, the one opinion that spoke for the most number of the 15 en banc judges — was written by Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes. It was joined in full by Haynes and six other judges, and in major part by two others.
Second, the two judges who did not fully join the Haynes opinion — Circuit Judges Gregg Costa and James L. Dennis — each wrote a separate opinion dissenting on the discriminatory intent question. They would have upheld the trial judge’s 2014 opinion that such illegal purpose has already been proven.
Circuit Judge Stephen A. Higginson, who joined the Haynes opinion in full, wrote a separate concurring opinion (joined by Judge Costa) seeking to answer the objections made by the dissenters to the main ruling that SB 14 had made to the ruling striking down Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Circuit Judge Edith H. Jones wrote the main dissenting opinion, joined by four other judges.
Three of the judges who supported the Jones dissent also wrote separate dissenting opinions joined by others in that bloc.
Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod did not join others’ dissents, but wrote one for herself, joined by one of the other bloc of dissenters.
The two dissenters who wanted to uphold Judge Gonzales Ramos on the discriminatory intent issue — Judges Costa and Dennis — wrote separate opinions for themselves; Judge Costa’s was labeled as a partial dissent, Judge Dennis’s as an opinion concurring in part, dissenting in part and supporting the judgment.
The Circuit Court had little difficulty overturning another part of the trial judge’s ruling: that SB 14 imposed an illegal “poll tax” because it put a financial penalty in gaining access to the necessary photo IDs. And the court chose not to rule on separate claims by the challengers that SB 14 put an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, but it did order those claims dismissed.
The dispute over SB 14 is likely headed ultimately to the Supreme Court, but other cases against other states’ photo ID laws are underway, and could reach the Justices earlier than the Texas case because of the heavy tasks still left for Judge Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi.