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Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Texas’ Voter ID Law

By Tim Eaton, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal appeals court put the Texas voter identification law back into effect Tuesday, just three days after a lower court struck down the law, calling it unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to revive the state’s voter ID law that was overturned by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi. The appeals court said that Ramos “erred in applying the injunction to this fast-approaching election cycle.”

Early voting for the Nov. 4 election begins Monday.

The 5th Circuit panel said that Ramos’ judgment “substantially disturbs the election process of the state of Texas just nine days before early voting begins. Thus, the value of preserving the status quo here is much higher than in most other contexts.”

The court’s ruling is temporary. Another panel of the 5th Circuit will rule later on the law’s constitutionality and whether it passes muster under the Voting Rights Act. Those questions ultimately could be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs in the case — including the U.S. Justice Department, several civil rights groups and others — will fight the appeals court’s order.

Gerry Hebert — a lawyer representing the lead plaintiffs in the case, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX), and the League of United Latin American Citizens — said Tuesday evening that he was taking immediate action. “I’m busy preparing my appeal to the Supreme Court,” he told the Austin American-Statesman.

Hebert and other lawyers will appeal directly to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is in charge of the appeals court that covers Texas. The plaintiffs will tell the justice that allowing the voter ID law to be in effect will cause more confusion than disallowing it. State officials haven’t finished educating local officials on the new law, and county election administrators know the old law better, Hebert said. The new law went into effect last year.

Conversely, Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott, said the ruling would help to avoid voter confusion.

“The state will continue to defend the voter ID law and remains confident that the district court’s misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits,” she said in a statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter ID laws are legal, Bean added, referring to a ruling on Indiana’s statute.

Abbott, the Republican front-runner for governor, tweeted within minutes of the ruling: “Victory in #VoterID case. Appeals court rules Texas #VoterID to be used this election.”

Abbott’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, said in a statement, “It’s deeply disturbing that Greg Abbott would call a law the court said is intentionally discriminatory against African-Americans and Hispanics a ‘victory.'”

So far, each step of the case — from Ramos’ judgment to Tuesday’s ruling — has followed the script that legal experts had expected. The case was always bound for the U.S. Supreme Court. The only question is whether the high court will take up Texas’ law on its own or with other challenges to other states’ voter ID laws.

Texas is one of seven states facing challenges to voting restrictions ahead of the November election. The Supreme Court recently blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law, but it allowed new rules to remain in place in North Carolina and Ohio.

The Texas voter ID battle started in 2011 when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 14 to create the voting requirements. The law was needed to protect the integrity of the ballot box, supporters said, as opponents claimed it unfairly would hurt minorities’ access to the polls. The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry.

One of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, the Texas statute requires voters to show one of seven forms of official photographic ID before casting ballots.

Initially, the law was barred from going into effect because it hadn’t received the federal approval needed by states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination. But in June 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that called for the federal approval process, and the law went into effect.

The civil rights groups sued the state, claiming the law would disproportionately limit minorities’ access to the polls.

Ramos ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying it “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans.”
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What’s Next

Lawyers suing to overturn the Texas voter identification law say they will appeal immediately to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law before Election Day. Meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide later if the law is constitutional and if it’s permissible under the Voting Rights Act.

Acceptable forms of Texas Voter ID

-Texas driver license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety

-Texas Election Identification Certificate issued by DPS

-Texas personal identification card issued by DPS

-Texas concealed handgun license issued by DPS

-U.S. military identification card containing the person’s photograph

-U.S. citizenship certificate containing the person’s photograph

-U.S. passport

Photo: Glenn~ via Flickr

Texas Voter ID Law: Discriminatory Or Common Sense?

By Tim Eaton, Austin American-Statesman

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, joining several civil rights groups, told a federal judge Tuesday in South Texas that the Texas voter identification law violates the Voting Rights Act by harming blacks’ and Latinos’ ability to participate in the electoral process.

Countering, lawyers from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office dismissed the groups’ charges and called the voter ID law a common-sense measure designed to fight election fraud.

Both sides presented opening statements Tuesday in a trial that could be a test case for other states’ voter ID laws. Plaintiffs’ lawyers dominated time in court because there are several plaintiff groups.

The Texas voter ID law was passed in 2011 and has been in effect since 2013. But the Justice Department under President Barack Obama and the other plaintiffs have sued the state to take the law off the books. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos might not rule before Election Day in November, so 13.6 million registered voters in Texas likely will need to produce valid photo IDs to cast ballots for Texas governor and other races.

Elizabeth Westfall, a lawyer from the Justice Department, told the Corpus Christi judge that the state’s voter ID law, which began as Senate Bill 14 in the 2011 legislative session, was drafted with a “discriminatory purpose” and that the legislation’s supporters set out to limit the minority vote.

The authors consistently rejected ways to make the bill nondiscriminatory by denying opponents’ attempts to create easier access to valid forms of identification, she said.

Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer representing the Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said he would show how the law favors whites.

Rosenberg said one form of allowable ID — a concealed handgun license — is more likely to be held by whites, while student IDs — which aren’t considered acceptable to cast ballots — are more likely to be the only form of ID for minorities.

He also said he planned to call a witness — Austin elections lawyer Buck Wood — to testify that voter impersonation is “virtually nonexistent,” despite claims by Abbott and Republicans in the Legislature.

Jose Garza, an attorney from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said, given the state’s explosive Latino growth, GOP lawmakers were faced with a choice in 2011: reach out to Latino voters or make a self-serving political decision.

“The state chose voter suppression,” he said.

Lawyers with the Texas attorney general’s office called the 2011 law a “common-sense requirement” for voters “to prove who they say they are.”

Reed Clay, a state lawyer, told the judge that the Texas voter ID law is no more burdensome than having to show an ID to board an airplane or open a bank account.

Clay also reiterated that the law was intended to prevent voter fraud and to protect the integrity of the election process.

The plaintiffs never have adequately proved that would-be voters who lack ID are minorities, Clay said. Plus, plaintiffs have had “intense difficulty” finding examples of people who have been disenfranchised by the law, he said.

Clay also said that Texas’ law was fashioned after an Indiana statute that was deemed acceptable by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Quoting the justices’ opinion in Crawford v. Marion County, Clay said that provisional ballots — which are allowed in the Indiana and Texas laws — “provide an adequate remedy” for voters who don’t have a valid form of ID.

Additionally, the Supreme Court said that a trip to a driver’s license office in Indiana “surely doesn’t qualify as a substantial burden or even represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting,” he said.

Clay said the plaintiffs won’t be able to prove discrimination, and the Texas law hasn’t been shown to have a negative effect on voter turnout.

And, after what he called a “fishing expedition” with an unprecedented level of discovery by the Justice Department and the civil rights groups, Clay concluded, “The plaintiffs return to this courtroom with empty nets.”

After the opening statements, plaintiffs offered testimony from a couple of people who said they haven’t been able to vote because of the law.

In video testimony, Sammie Louise Bates, an elderly black woman from Round Rock, said she didn’t have any of the seven required forms of identification and wasn’t able to vote.

Calvin Gerard Carrier, a black originally from the Southeast Texas town of China, testified that his 83-year-old father had been denied the right to vote for not having a valid form of ID. He only had an expired driver’s license and a Veterans Administration card, Carrier said.

“He stated to me that he couldn’t believe that after serving his country in the war, all the Social Security he has paid, working his entire life that he’d be denied the right to vote because of a simple card,” Carrier said.

The case, which is scheduled to last two weeks, is expected to be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ultimately, it could be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Photo: Bill & Heather Jones via Flickr

Does The Rick Perry Grand Jury Lean Democratic?

By Tim Eaton, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Democrats appear to outnumber Republicans on the grand jury that will consider criminal charges against Texas Governor Rick Perry.

But four members of the 12-member panel have no party primary voting history and two others don’t appear to be registered voters.

Travis County voting records examined by The Austin American-Statesman show that three, and possibly four, members of the racially diverse grand jury have voted in Democratic primaries. Only one — or maybe two — of the grand jurors have voted in Republican primaries.

Because two of the jurors have the same name as others who are registered to vote in the county, it’s impossible to know those members’ political leanings.

The Travis County grand jury, which was empaneled last week for three months, will decide if a criminal indictment is warranted in Perry’s actions in carrying out a threat to veto a $7.5 million, two-year appropriation to the Public Integrity Unit, housed in the Travis County district attorney’s office, after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign because of her drunken driving arrest.

A message left with the office of Perry, a Republican, wasn’t answered, and lawyers on both sides of the case didn’t return calls.

In a county that tilts Democratic, it’s not surprising that Democrats might outweigh Republicans on the grand jury, said Susan Klein, a law professor with expertise in criminal procedure and prosecutorial ethics at the University of Texas Law School. After all, 60 percent of the county’s voters cast ballots for President Barack Obama in 2012, while 36 percent of voters favored GOP challenger and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

“That is the grand jury you’re going to get,” she said, adding that there’s “nothing defense attorneys can do about it.”

But Klein added that she expects the grand jury, which will hear only the special prosecutor’s side of the story, to decide on a possible indictment based on the law.

David Kwok, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said it’s hard to say if the grand jury, considering its possible Democratic slant, will be sympathetic to the prosecution.

“It is possible that it might have some kind of impact,” he said of the political makeup of the panel.

There are a lot of variables at play in addition to the makeup of the grand jury, such as how independent its members are and how much interest they take in establishing probable cause that the governor committed a crime, he said.

Perry is the latest Republican politician who has faced a Democratic-leaning grand jury in Travis County. Two other high-profile cases in the past few decades against GOP leaders resulted in indictments.

In 2006, former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), then the third-ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was indicted for money-laundering by a 14-member grand jury that included seven people with a history of voting in Democratic primaries, according to a Houston Chronicle report at the time. Ultimately, DeLay was convicted. The decision was reversed on appeal, but now prosecutors are appealing the reversal.

Also, former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted by a Travis County grand jury. In 1993, Hutchison complained that nine of the 12 members of that panel appeared to have Democratic leanings and voted in Democratic primaries two or more times since 1988, according to a review at the time by the Chronicle.

Hutchison, who served as state treasurer from 1991 to 1993, when she was elected to the Senate, was indicted for official misconduct and records tampering after allegations surfaced that treasury employees and equipment were used for political purposes and that efforts took place to cover up any wrongdoing under Hutchison’s tenure as treasurer. Hutchison accused then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle of being politically motivated. Ultimately, Earle declined to proceed with the case.

Dick DeGuerin, a Houston-based lawyer who represented DeLay in his money-laundering case, said it’s “very difficult” for Republican politicians to get a fair shake with a Travis County grand jury.

“It’s a pretty well-known fact that Austin is heavily Democratic, always has been, always probably will be,” said DeGuerin, a native Austinite who isn’t involved in the Perry case. “As a GOP politician, I would not want to go to trial in Travis County.”

At least Perry is facing a special prosecutor in Michael McCrum of San Antonio, and not a lawyer from the Travis County district attorney’s office, DeGuerin said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr