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Justice Department wants out of voter ID case

As expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed Monday it plans to ditch its longstanding position that Texas lawmakers purposefully discriminated against minority voters by passing the nation’s strictest voter identification law in 2011.

The move comes one day before a federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments on that high-stakes voting rights question, and it highlights yet another instance in which President Donald Trump has dramatically departed from the path of his predecessor.

Former President Obama’s Justice Department originally teamed up with civil rights groups against Texas throughout the long-winding legal battle over the ID law, known as Senate Bill 14. But on Monday, lawyers for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told parties that they were dropping a claim that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and African-American voters.

The Justice Department’s immediate plans do not include changing its position that the ID law has a “discriminatory effect” on certain voters. A federal appeals court has already resolved that issue, ruling against Texas.

But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is scheduled to weigh a more specific question Tuesday: Whether lawmakers knowingly discriminated.

A soon-to-be-filed Justice Department motion “seeks to dismiss the discriminatory purpose claim, but not the discriminatory effect claim,” Mark Abueg, a department spokesman, confirmed to the Texas Tribune.

A ruling against Texas could ultimately put it back on the list of states needing federal approval (called “preclearance”) before changing election laws. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list.

Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, one of several groups challenging the Texas law, vowed to press on in the case — even without the federal government’s help.

“None of the facts have changed, just the administration,” she said in an interview. “We will be arguing the same claim, and we think it’s really disappointing that the Department of Justice is backing away from its enforcement of voting rights.”

See here for some background. Today’s hearing was rescheduled from January; the DOJ and the State of Texas tried to get today’s hearing postponed as well, to give the Lege a chance to pass the voter ID 2.0 bill, but were denied. Even if Sen. Huffman’s update to the voter ID law, which would incorporate the so-called “softening” agreements from the 2016 Fifth Circuit ruling, were to be passed, it wouldn’t affect this litigation anyway, since the question being litigated is whether the Lege acted with discriminatory intent in 2011 when SB14 was passed. It will be interesting to see if today’s hearing has any effect on the Huffman bill.

So this is where we are. The private plaintiffs will have more work to do now, but as they note the facts haven’t changed, just who’s sitting at the table with them. Rick Hasen believes (and I agree with him) that “eventually DOJ will be on the other side of this issue, supporting the right of states to make it harder to register and vote (purportedly on anti-fraud or public confidence grounds)”. Among other things, that means that Texas will get a much warmer reception from the feds if they pass bills this session or next that restrict voting rights, but that day hasn’t happened yet. Today we will hopefully move one step closer to a ruling that Texas didn’t just accidentally discriminate with SB14. The Lone Star Project, Political Animal, the Current, and the Chron have more.

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