Updated 2:15 p.m.
A three-judge panel in Washington today refused to allow Texas to implement its controversial voter photo identification law, saying the "stringent" measure would harm racial minorities and the poor.
The judicial panel, which said the law would have a "retrogressive," or backward-moving, effect on minorities, delivered a significant win for the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. DOJ lawyers argued the law would have a disproportionate harm on blacks and Hispanics. The opinion, which denied judicial pre-clearance of the law, is here.
"The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that—at least to our knowledge—is the most stringent in the country," Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said in the panel decision. "That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty."
The ruling today forbids Texas to move forward with its voter ID law for the November election. The decision was the second big loss for Texas in the last two days at the hands of federal judges in Washington in voter-related cases.
The court today did not rule on whether the Republican-sponsored law was driven by a discriminatory purpose. U.S. District Judges Rosemary Collyer and Robert Wilkins, sitting with Tatel, made up the panel that presided over a week-long trial in July.
The Texas state attorney general, Greg Abbott, vowed to appeal the ruling.
"The Supreme Court of the United States has already upheld Voter ID laws as a constitutional method of ensuring integrity at the ballot box," Abbott said in a statement. "Today's decision is wrong on the law and improperly prevents Texas from implementing the same type of ballot integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana—and were upheld by the Supreme Court."
The panel stressed in its 56-page ruling that it was not passing judgment on the merits of voter identification initiatives at large. Such laws, the court said, could receive DOJ approval if they ensure "all prospective voters can easily obtain free photo ID" and "any underlying documents required to obtain that ID are truly free of charge."
The court said the Texas legislature "defeated several amendments that could have made this a far closer case." The amendments would have, among other things, waived all fees for indigent people who needed to obtain certain underlying documents and reimbursed poor Texans for travel costs.
Dechert partner Ezra Rosenberg, pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, heralded the court ruling.
"This is a highly significant decision that upholds the right of all Americans to vote," Rosenberg said in an interview. "That's what this case was about since day one."
The ruling today comes just days after a different three-judge panel in Washington ruled against redistricting efforts in Texas.
That panel on August 28 called the state's redistricting plan also discriminated against black and Hispanic voters. Abbott said earlier this week the state would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the panel's ruling in the redistricting case.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said in a statement this afternoon: “The court’s decision today and the decision earlier this week on the Texas redistricting plans not only reaffirm - but help protect - the vital role the Voting Rights Act plays in our society to ensure that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted."
Under the proposed voter identification law, Holder said, "many of those without the required voter identification would be forced to travel great distances to get one – and some would have to pay for the documents they might need to do so."
Holder said DOJ's "efforts to uphold and enforce voting rights will remain aggressive and even-handed."
This week in Washington federal district court, another three-judge panel began hearing testimony in South Carolina's request for approval of its voter identification law. DOJ lawyers contend the law will harm minorities.
A lawyer for South Carolina, H. Christopher Bartolomucci, a Bancroft partner, told the panel that the state's law was enacted "to help prevent election fraud and to enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process."
In the Texas voter identification dispute, the special three-judge panel will still hear the state's challenge to the constitutionality of a part of the Voting Rights Act. The judges today asked the lawyers to submit a schedule to the court to deal with that phase of the litigation.