Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Texas' Voter Photo I.D. Law On Appeal

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans today heard oral arguments for the State of Texas' appeal of U.S. Southern District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos' decision to block Texas' photo I.D. law.

After a two-week trial on the constitutionality of Texas' photo I.D. law in September 2014, Judge Ramos struck down Texas' voter photo I.D. law with a 147-page finding issued on October 9, 2014. Judge Ramos found the law had been adopted “with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose,” created “an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote” and amounted to a poll tax. The state of Texas petitioned the Fifth Circuit Court to stay Judge Ramos' order, pending appeal, which proceeded today.The stay was granted and the law remains in effect, pending the Fifth Circuit's decision on the appeal.

The 2011 SB14 law reduced the types of identification documents voters can show to vote from fourteen down to one of just seven types of photo identification documents. Four are available from the Texas Department of Public Safety — driver’s licenses, personal IDs, concealed-handgun permits, and election identification certificates. Federally issued passports, citizenship certificates and military IDs also are acceptable.

The Texas photo voter I.D. lawsuit is unique among legal challenges to similar voter I.D. laws adopted by other states, because Federal District Judge Ramos found evidence of intentional racial discrimination by Texas Republican legislators in drafting the SB14 voter I.D. legislation in 2011.

The full Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is one of the most conservative in the nation. The three-judge panel who will rule on the appeal is composed of: Chief Judge Carl Stewart, appointed by President Bill Clinton; Judge Catharina Haynes, appointed by President George W. Bush; and Judge Nannette Brown, appointed by President Barack Obama.

Two lawyers representing Plaintiffs’ in the case today gave oral arguments to the three-judge panel in support of Judge Ramos' finding. Arguing for Judge Ramos' decision were Erin Flynn with the U.S. Justice Department, and Chad Dunn, representing the lead plaintiffs in the Texas case — U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Scott Keller of the Texas Solicitor General's Office argued against Judge Ramos' finding, defending Texas' voter I.D. law.

MP3 audio of today's court arguments and questioning.
Keller and the Plaintiffs’ lawyers were allowed 20 minutes to present oral arguments for their sides of case. The three-judge panel followed up by questioning the lawyers on their positions.

Judge Haynes noted during questioning that several bills have been submitted during 2015 Texas legislative session that could broaden the number and types of I.D. voters could use to vote. [While such bills have been submitted, they will likely die, without action, when the legislature adjourns at the end of May.]

Judge Haynes also noted that a statewide election took place in Texas last year under the requirements of the new law, which was being enforced while the appeal was pending. “Shouldn’t we look at the last election?” she asked Erin Flynn of the Justice Department. Flynn answered that “Turnout number doesn’t capture the deterrent and suppressive effect that a voter ID law has.”  Judge Haynes peppered the lawyers with questions throughout their allotted speaking time. Most of her questions center on asking why the legislature did not remedy the faults Judge Ramos found in the SB14 law. Haynes also asked repeatedly why Judge Ramos reinstated the old voter I.D. law, that allows voter to use a utility bill as I.D. to vote, rather order that just the Voter Registration Certificate, mailed to every voter, was sufficient I.D. to vote.

The Fifth Circuit Court panel of judges must now decide whether or not Judge Ramos made "clear error" on her finding that the law was adopted “with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose,” and created “an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.”

Striking down Judge Ramos' ruling could be a hard decision for the three-judge appellate panel given the very compelling evidence Judge Ramos cites in her 147-page fining.

After the three-judge panel issues their decision, the loosing side could be appealed to the full Fifth Circuit Court en blanc, or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even if the full 5th Circuit were to hear and rule on the case, there is little doubt the case will ultimately go to the Supreme Court on appeal of 5th Circuit's decision, whatever the 5th Circuit's decision may be.

Background: Texas Photo I.D. Law Fifth Circuit Appeal Takes A Step Forward

Texas Tribune report of oral arguments.

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