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.”
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
Photo: Glenn~ via Flickr