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A Victory For Voting Rights in Texas

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down the state’s strict voter-ID law.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A U.S. federal appeals court struck down Texas’s voter-ID law on racial-discrimination grounds Wednesday, handing a major victory to voting-rights activists ahead of the 2016 election.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Senate Bill 14 disproportionately burdened black and Hispanic voters, thereby violating the federal Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination in American elections.

“The record shows that drafters and proponents of SB 14 were aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities, and that they nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact,” Judge Catharina Haynes wrote for the majority.

Most cases in the federal appeals courts are heard by three-judge panels. One such panel previously sided with the plaintiffs last August. But the Fifth Circuit agreed to rehear the case, Veasey v. Abbott, in a rare en banc hearing with its entire complement of 15 judges in March.

Nine of those judges sided with lower courts on its findings of that the law had a discriminatory effect. The Fifth Circuit also sent back the plaintiffs’ claims legislators had a racially discriminatory purpose to the lower courts for further consideration and rejected claims the law imposed an unconstitutional poll tax.

The ruling comes just over three years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Shelby County v. Holder revived the controversial law:

The law in question, known as Senate Bill 14, imposed voter-ID requirements on Texas voters when it was signed by then-Texas Governor Rick Perry in May 2011. But a federal court blocked the law from going into effect soon thereafter, ruling that Texas hadn’t proved the law lacked a racially discriminatory purpose or effect. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required certain jurisdictions, including Texas, to receive federal approval for changes to voting laws before enacting them. Critics argued the law would leave thousands of poorer voters, many of them from African American and Hispanic communities, without the means to cast a ballot.

SB 14 lay dormant until June 2013, when a Supreme Court decision helped revive it. In a sharply divided 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Court struck down the formula in Section 4 that determined which jurisdictions fell under Section 5’s preclearance requirements. With that formula gone, Section 5 became inoperative. Texas officials announced a few hours after the ruling that they would enforce SB 14.

A group of Texas voters then challenged SB 14 under a different part of the Voting Rights Act that forbids racial discrimination in voting laws nationwide. That provision, known as Section 2, is a weaker alternative to preclearance. Section 5 required state officials to prove the absence of discriminatory intent or effect when crafting new election laws—an extremely high threshold for those jurisdictions. Section 2 instead places the burden to prove racial discrimination or effect on voters themselves.

Texas’s next step would be a last-minute request for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. But the Fifth Circuit’s ruling tilts the odds of success before the shorthanded court against the state: A 4-4 split among the justices would uphold the lower court’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

The justices have signaled they are keeping an eye on the case. After the Fifth Circuit agreed to an en banc hearing in March, the high court set a de facto deadline of July 20 to issue a ruling before either Texas or the plaintiffs could ask the justices to intervene. The Fifth Circuit met the deadline with only a few hours to spare.