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Voting Rights Act

Redistricting update: It’s all about the emails

Two days into the trial, and there’s more drama.

Plaintiffs challenging Texas’ 2013 redistricting maps Tuesday accused the state of improperly delaying the release of thousands of pages of documents from them, including 113 documents that state lawyers refuse to hand over because they say they are privileged.

The spat may further delay a conclusion to the weeklong trial, which already was frustrating judges because of repetitive questions.

Many of the documents in question pertain to communications of the chairman of the 2013 redistricting committee, Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, with other people involved in the redistricting, according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The documents, under rules imposed by the three-judge panel, should have been disclosed years ago in the six-year old lawsuit, along with what’s known as a “privilege log,” but the apparent failure was recently discovered by Mark Gaber, one of the lawyers representing what’s known as the Quesada group of plaintiffs, according to court papers filed by Gaber.

After Gaber pressed for the documents last week, state lawyers over the weekend released more than 7,000 pages but stopped short of turning over everything. Gaber filed an emergency motion to compel the state to turn over the 113 pages it says are protected by attorney-client privilege.

“They’ve sort of strung it out throughout the weekend,” said José Garza, a lawyer representing another group of plaintiffs, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “We just got another drop this morning. It was documents that had been requested two years ago.”

That was a Tuesday report, now here’s one from Wednesday.

Minorities in Texas are facing uphill battles in getting proper representation in the state as the Legislature continues passing laws that are biased toward them, according to witnesses for civil rights groups challenging the state’s 2013 political boundaries.

Allan Lichtman, a social scientist and history professor at American University, analyzed patterns in the state, including events leading to the 2013 special session that resulted in the latest congressional and state House maps.

Though Republicans have admitted that prior “redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats,” Lichtman testified that his analysis shows that isn’t true.

“What was done here was to knowingly and intentionally impede the opportunity for African-Americans and Latinos to elect candidates of their choice,” Lichtman testified. “What we see here is intentional discrimination.”

[…]

Lichtman also testified that although Latinos and blacks contributed nearly 90 percent of the state’s explosive growth in recent years, they remain under-represented by nearly four congressional districts. Anglos, whose population decreased, are overrepresented by 5 ½ districts, Licthman said.

The testimony magnified statistics in a graphic Luis Vera , legal counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, showed the court: Despite contributing to most of Texas’ explosive growth that resulted in the state gaining four new congressional districts, Latinos today control only 16.7 percent of congressional districts in Texas – the same percentage they held in 1970.

See here for the opening report on the hearings. There may or may not be anything to these emails, but it sure does serve the state’s purposes to run time off the clock. In the Wednesday story, we learn that the judges ordered the state to turn over half of the remaining 113 emails they had refused to hand over before. The plaintiffs are still presenting their case as of yesterday, with the state’s defense to follow. Michael Li continues to live-tweet the proceedings, and the DMN, the Trib, and ThinkProgress have more.

Redistricting trial week begins

This will be the main event of the week.

Eight months ahead of the 2018 primaries, Texas and its legal foes on Monday will kick off a week-long trial that could shake up races across the state.

The state and minority rights groups have been squabbling for six years over new political district boundaries drawn following the 2010 census. As part of a long-winding legal battle, a panel of three federal judges this week will reconvene in a federal courthouse here to consider the validity of the state’s political maps and whether changes should quickly be made to the state’s House and Congressional boundaries ahead of the midterm elections. At issue is whether the current boundaries violate the voting rights of millions of Texans of color.

The showdown comes months after the panel of judges found fault with the state’s 2011 drafts of the political maps. In a pair of rulings this spring, the judges also found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in crafting them.

Those rulings did not require an immediate remedy because the state has been running elections since 2013 under court-drawn maps that were crafted amid an election scramble and later adopted by the Legislature.

But the judges are now turning their attention to the existing boundaries.

There’s an overview of how we got here and what is at stake in that story and also in this Statesman story, which notes the time factor:

Don’t expect immediate gratification. When the trial closes Friday or Saturday, the judges will take the matter under advisement — though a written ruling is expected relatively quickly as the court labors under looming election deadlines.

State officials have advised the court that any new maps would have to be ready by around Oct. 1 to meet deadlines for setting precinct lines and to allow candidate filing for the 2018 primaries to begin, as scheduled, in mid-November. Complicating the timing will be the inevitable appeal that the losing side will make directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If new maps are needed, the judges likely will order additional input on how to redraw district boundaries, lawyers said Friday.

The maps in question are the Congressional and State House maps that were implemented in 2013. Those maps in turn are basically identical to the interim maps created in 2011 after preclearance was rejected; the Lege adopted them with a couple of tweaks. The state claims that since the current maps are based on ones that had been drawn by the court, they cannot be discriminatory. The plaintiffs note that the 2013 maps differ only a little from the 2011 maps, which were ruled to be discriminatory, and that many of the problematic elements of the 2011 maps exist in the same form in the 2013 maps. The trial this week is to answer the question whether the existing maps are discriminatory, and if so what should replace them and also should the state be bailed back into preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. This Brennan Center article explains it better than I just did, with more details.

Here’s the Trib Day One story. A couple of highlights:

With Texas becoming less white each day, lawyers for minority rights groups opened their push for new maps by parsing the state’s demographic growth, which shows that the population of eligible white voters has significantly declined since 2010.

When asked by federal district Judge Orlando Garcia how this relates to the 2013 maps, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus’ lawyer, Jose Garza, indicated it was proof that Texans of color don’t have proportional representation under the maps currently in place.

“Even today … minorities are underrepresented when measured against population data and population figures,” Garza said.

MALC also presented an alternative map to demonstrate that the state House boundaries could have been drawn in a way that minimized the slicing of municipalities and created additional “opportunity districts” where minority voters are able to select their preferred candidates.

Creating that type of district was not a legislative priority when the House took on redistricting in 2013; lawmakers only made “cosmetic changes” that didn’t “improve the overall map for minority opportunity,” former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer testified before the court.

In 2011, state lawmakers drew legislative and congressional maps following the 2010 census, but they were immediately challenged in court on the basis that they diluted the voting strength of Hispanic and black voters. The court drew interim maps amid an election scramble, and the Legislature in 2013 moved to adopt them.

Martinez Fischer argued that efforts to improve those maps for minority representation were rebuffed by the Republican majority.

“It was almost all upon deaf ears,” Martinez Fischer said.

All the plaintiffs’ briefs for the trial can be found here. The demonstration map mentioned in the story for the State House is H391, and C285 is for Congress, with the former drawn by MALC and the latter by MALC, LULAC, and the Perez plaintiffs. There more of these – go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us/, choose a Shaded Plan, change the Category to All, and scroll down. The last maps listed for each type will be the ones being shown in the trial. Michael Li of the Brennan Center is live-tweeting the trial, so follow along with him for the play-by-play. I’ll do my best to keep up as well.

Next round of voter ID briefs ordered

Moving right along:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

With the next election season looming, a federal judge has set a fast-paced schedule for determining whether Texas should be penalized for a voter ID law found to have been written by Republicans to intentionally discriminate against minority voters.

Saying no additional hearings will be needed, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos gave lawyers two weeks to file legal briefs on the matter, with a final round of response briefs due July 17.

Ramos also said she wants to hear arguments about whether Texas should be placed under preclearance — meaning the U.S. Justice Department would have to approve any changes to voting laws or practices in the state.

The order, dated Tuesday, said Ramos will take into consideration Senate Bill 5, which was passed by the Legislature in May to expand the forms of identification that registered voters can use to cast ballots in Texas. The judge gave no other details beyond saying she will weigh SB 5 “to the extent that it, on its face, may be relevant to issues regarding remedies.”

Lawyers for Texas have told Ramos that state election officials need a decision by Aug. 10, when voter certificates are finalized and sent to each county for printing.

See here for the previous update. Note that the August 10 date is a deadline for this November’s election; there is still time to fight over this before 2018, though not that much if we take the primaries into account. Basically, this order says we’re done with presenting evidence, now it’s time to decide what if any remedies are needed to bring the state into compliance. The plaintiffs, citing the previous ruling that the law was enacted with discriminatory intent, want the whole thing thrown out and the status restored to what it was before 2011. The state argues that SB5 fixed all the problems and so no further action is needed. Let’s just say that someone is not going to be happy with the ruling.

No partisan gerrymandering claims (yet) in Texas

From Texas Redistricting:

The three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case has issued an order striking the expert report offered by the Texas Democratic Party in connection with its partisan gerrymandering claim. However, the court said that it would allow the TDP to make an offer of proof under Federal Rule of Evidence 103 so that the report could be part of the record on appeal.

The panel said that it was striking the report because it had previously dismissed the TDP’s partisan gerrymandering claim regarding both the 2011 and 2013 maps.

The long and the short is that the court won’t be reviving the partisan gerrymandering claim and any remedy for the TDP will have to come from the Supreme Court when the case is eventually appealed (after the court decides the other issues in the case).

See here for more on the partisan redistricting case, which came out of Wisconsin. The Texas plaintiffs still have their discriminatory intent rulings, which offer a fair bit of potential for change, as does the recent SCOTUS ruling on racial gerrymandering. It’s possible the Wisconsin case could affect the next round of redistricting in 2021, but I wouldn’t count on anything before then. In the meantime, this case is moving along, and with any luck we’ll have us some new maps in place for next year.

Fifth Circuit to hear AALDEF lawsuit appeal

This happens today.

Amid last-minute efforts to overhaul the state’s voter identification law in light of an ongoing legal fight, the Texas Legislature gaveled out without addressing another embattled election law that’s now moving forward in federal court.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday will take up a legal challenge to an obscure provision in the Texas Election Code that requires interpreters helping someone cast a ballot to also be registered to vote in the same county in which they are providing help.

That state law has been on hold since last year after a federal district judge ruled it violated the federal Voting Rights Act under which any voter who needs assistance because of visual impairments, disabilities or literacy skills can be helped in casting a ballot by the person of their choice, as long as it’s not their employer or a union leader.

“There’s nothing that’s being imposed. The state just needs to get out of the way,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s democracy program.

[…]

“I don’t see how we could in legislative action place a criteria that would limit it more than a constitutional standard,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who filed one of the measures during this year’s regular legislative session that would’ve only left in place the assistor provision. “I just don’t think the state is serious about the right to vote or access to the election box. We just seem to bend over backwards to place barriers instead of working to increase voter turnout.”

Her legislation to bring the state in line with federal law languished in the Senate State Affairs Committee after colleagues raised concerns that it would allow voters to obtain help at the polls from noncitizens, Garcia said. The voter registration requirement by default requires the interpreter to be a U.S. citizen and 18 years old.

But sometimes voters ask their minor children to help them cast their ballots, Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero of Fort Worth told the House Elections Committee during an April hearing. His proposal was similar to Garcia’s and also did not advance out of committee.

Despite the intricacies between interpreters and assistors, the case could ultimately come down to a question of standing if the state has its way.

See here, here, and here for the background. There was a simple legislative fix to what really shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place – the state even admitted that the Williamson County election officials who created the fuss in the first place acted incorrectly – but nothing got done. The state is now claiming that the plaintiffs lack standing to pursue this litigation as the original voter has passed away, and I have a sinking feeling that if the Fifth Circuit doesn’t buy that argument, SCOTUS might. We’ll just have to see.

Voter ID plaintiffs ask court to void the law

As well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lawyers for minority voters and politicians asked a federal judge Wednesday to void the Texas voter ID law, saying it is the next logical step for a statute found to be discriminatory.

The lawyers also said they will ask U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to require Texas officials to get U.S. Justice Department approval for any future changes to election law or voting procedures to guard against additional attempts to discriminate against minority voters.

[…]

Much of Wednesday’s courtroom conference focused on recent action by the Legislature to soften the requirements of the state’s voter ID law.

Senate Bill 5, signed into law last week by Gov. Greg Abbott, was meant to fix problems Ramos had identified with the 2011 law, Texas Deputy Solicitor General Matthew Frederick said.

“We are trying to have a reasonable, fair photo voter ID law that allows everyone to vote,” Frederick said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went further in an advisory, filed last week in Ramos’ court, arguing that SB 5 will provide a safety valve that allows registered voters to cast a ballot if they couldn’t reasonably obtain a government-issued photo ID.

“Senate Bill 5 cures any alleged discriminatory effect caused by the state’s photo voter ID requirement,” Paxton wrote.

Plaintiffs lawyer Ezra Rosenberg disagreed.

“SB 5 still bears the discriminatory intent of (the original law) because it still visits burdens on those groups your honor has found were discriminated against,” Rosenberg told Ramos.

Plaintiffs lawyer Chad Dunn said SB 5 was enacted with the same legislative problems Ramos had identified in the original voter ID law, including no study to determine the bill’s impact on minority voters and the rejection of amendments proposed by black and Latino lawmakers to soften the bill’s effect.

See here, here, and here for more on SB5. The DMN also reported on this status call.

In April, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found the 2011 voter ID law discriminatory for the second time. But she delayed any remedy her court could provide, including placing the state under federal supervision, until the end of the session to give state lawmakers a chance to act.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the state argued that lawmakers had addressed the court’s concerns. The plaintiffs were trying to “paint a caricature” of the state and the law that was not true, said Matthew Frederick, Texas deputy solicitor general.

“It’s just a bill that’s trying to do what the court told us to do and fix SB 14 [the voter ID law],” Frederick said. “We’re trying to have a reasonable, fair photo ID law that allows everybody to vote.”

Frederick asked Ramos to dissolve a ruling she made last fall that softened the voter ID law for the presidential election after an appeals court found the voter ID law discriminatory. That would allow the law, with the new changes, to go into effect in January of next year.

Frederick wants to the court to rule by Aug. 10. If a decision is delayed any further, it could disrupt elections in 2018, he said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they don’t see a need for a resolution by August. Rather than ruling on whether the newly passed legislation fixed issues with the original voter ID law, they argued, the court should focus on providing remedies for its findings that the law discriminated against minorities and did so on purpose.

“The court should continue its course and strike it down,” said Chad Dunn, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the plaintiffs.

Doing so would bring Texas back to the voter requirements that were in effect before the 2011 voter ID law. Dunn said the newly passed law, also known as Senate Bill 5, did not fully address issues with the original voter ID law and was a “duct tape” solution.

“It is litigation strategy masquerading as a legislative function,” he said.

Dunn said the bill ignored some of the provisions Ramos had suggested in her interim order, such as listing an “other” box on the declaration of reasonable impediments. Not including the box limits the documents people can use to vote, and making it a felony to lie on the declaration could discourage voters, he said.

You know where I stand on this. I don’t see how SB5 can possibly address the discriminatory intent issue, but even if one can accept that it does, it’s still the case that the state did as little as it thought it could get away with to mitigate the effect of voter ID. There’s still no transparency in how the 2016 outreach effort was conducted, huge numbers of people were confused about what they needed to vote, the list of accepted documents that don’t require an affidavit is the same, and the penalty for lying on the form is excessive and possibly discouraging to voters. Given all this, and given the massive scope of the failure in 2016, voiding the law is the only sensible remedy that even approaches a proper level of redress. Judge Ramos has asked both sides for a brief on what they think the remedy should be for Monday, though I doubt there will be any surprises in them. The Trib has more.

Voter ID 2.0 gets final passage

Hopefully, this will turn out to have been a waste of time.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas House and Senate have approved a deal to relax the state’s voter identification requirements, meaning the closely watched legislation now only awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval.

The Republican is expected to sign Senate Bill 5, capping a flurry of late activity that pushed the legislation to the finish line after some state leaders feared its demise — and legal consequences from inaction.

The House approved the compromise bill Sunday in a 92-56 vote — one day after the Senate backed the deal along party lines.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s bill, which would soften voter ID requirements once considered strictest in the nation, responds to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters.

[…]

Under the final bill, Texans who own qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver’s license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate. Such IDs may be expired up to four years, thanks to a provision in the House bill that survived the compromise. Voters 70 years and older may use such IDs expired for any length of time.

The final bill stripped some provisions from the House legislation, including requirements that the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout and that the agency reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

House Democrats on Sunday voiced disappointment with those changes.

“The attempt was to try and bring some type of transparency, said Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who had pushed the spending disclosure provision. “My concern is basically handing a blank check over to the Secretary of State’s office.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sure the state and the Republicans didnt want to go into the June 7 status call with Judge Ramos empty-handed, but I really don’t see how this bill changes anything. It (barely) mitigates the effect of the 2011 voter ID law, but does not – cannot – address the discriminatory intent of the law. Add in the completely half-assed way the state implemented the court-ordered mitigations in 2016, as well as its refusal to be transparent about those efforts should make it clear that they are trying to do the tiniest minimum to get out from under the court order. The only answer here, the only way to get their attention, is to throw the law out entirely, and invoke Section 3 to make it harder for a new voter ID bill to get passed. Here’s hoping.

No special session for redistricting

Buried in my Wednesday post about the SCOTUS ruling that declared North Carolina’s Congressional map to be an illegal gerrymander was a note that the court in the Texas redistricting case asked the state to consider a special session to redraw Texas’ map, taking that ruling into account. The DMN had a story about that:

In striking down North Carolina’s congressional district map, the Supreme Court sent Texas a firm warning Monday about how the state’s case may fare if it reaches that stage.

Hours after the ruling, the federal district court in San Antonio currently overseeing the Texas case issued an order to the relevant parties asking them to submit briefs detailing how the North Carolina ruling will affect their claims, with a deadline of June 6.

Judge Xavier Rodriguez, on behalf of the panel, also directed Texas to consider whether it would like to “voluntarily undertake redistricting in a special session” of the legislature in light of the North Carolina ruling, giving the state until Friday to decide.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the case, said he interpreted the district court’s new order as a message to the state.

“The way I read it is that the court is warning the state of Texas to fix these intentionally discriminatory maps or it will in a way the state might not like,” said Anchia, D-Dallas.

[…]

Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the North Carolina ruling will be an “important decision” for the other districting efforts winding through the legal system, including those in Texas.

“It makes clear that this isn’t about any sort of talismanic test or anything like that, but that you actually have to delve into the facts and circumstances about how maps are drawn,” Li said. “So even a district that looks pretty and has nice lines, and everything like that, can still be problematic. And it’s really up to the trial court to delve into that.”

Democrats in Texas celebrated the ruling as a promising indication of how their arguments will fare moving forward.

“I am happy that North Carolina voters secured another victory against the national Republican crusade to undermine the voting power of African Americans and Hispanics in local, state, and federal elections,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who has been on the front lines of another legal case against Texas’ voter ID law.

The request from the district court in San Antonio for new filings in the wake of the North Carolina decision confirmed the potential impact of the ruling. Matt Angle, the director of the Lone Star Project, a liberal advocacy group, said the court “is all but screaming in the ears of Texas Republican leaders to pull back from their culture of racial discrimination” by redrawing the map.

“Don’t count on Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick or other Texas Republican leaders to listen or care,” Angle said in a written statement. “Texas Republicans have adopted discrimination and vote suppression as essential tools to hold power.”

Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, sent two letters earlier this year to Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, asking her to hold a hearing on the matter as chairwoman of the House Redistricting Committee. But the committee has not met at all this session.

The court had given the state till today to decide whether or not to take its own shot at drawing a legal map first. Yesterday, they gave their answer.

In response to a question from the court, the State of Texas said in a filing today that it has no plans to hold a special session to redraw state house and congressional maps.

The state said that its position remained that the state house and congressional adopted in 2013 to replace earlier maps were free of discriminatory purpose, did not use race as a predominant factor, or violate the Voting Rights Act – saying that it acted in good faith when it adopted court-drawn interim plans on a permanent basis.

The state also said that “any further attempt to reconfigure the State’s electoral districts will only result in new legal challenges.”

All righty then. That filing may disappoint the Texas Republican Congressional delegation, however.

Several congressional Republicans told the Tribune they want Abbott to call a special session to redraw the Congressional lines. They believe such a maneuver would put their allies in the state legislature in the driver’s seat, circumventing Republicans’ worst fear: that a panel of federal judges will draw a less favorable map of its own.

“I can’t speak for my whole delegation but I’ve already reached out to some of my friends back in the legislature…I said, ‘Give me a holler,'” said U.S. Rep. Randy Weber R-Friendswood, on his hopes for a special session.

“My thought is, if the legislature doesn’t [redraw the map], then the court is going to drop the map, which I think is way outside their constitutional purview,” he added.

[…]

To be sure, the Congressional delegation would like to keep the current lines. But its calls for a special session are rooted in fears that the map will not hold up in court.

And even those fears are not uniform within the delegation itself.

“One attorney will tell you one thing, another attorney will tell you something different,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan. “There’s more confusion than consensus.”

I’m pretty sure there will be a new map, though it may be that the changes are fairly minimal, and it’s also possible that the state can force a delay until 2020. I don’t know that I’d bet my own money on those outcomes, however. Note that Greg Abbott may well call a special session for other reasons, just not for this because the state thinks it’s totally going to win. I have a feeling this subject will come up again during the scheduled hearing on July 10. Stay tuned.

The SCOTUS ruling on North Carolina’s gerrymandering could affect Texas

This is potentially a very big deal.

In striking down North Carolina’s congressional district map, the Supreme Court sent Texas a firm warning Monday about how the state’s case may fare if it reaches that stage.

The 5-3 North Carolina ruling affirmed a previous district court decision, which found that Republican state legislators there had “packed” black voters into two Democratic-held districts to dilute the impact of minority votes in other congressional seats.

Written by Justice Elena Kagan, the ruling is the latest in a series of rejections from the Supreme Court in recent years toward redistricting efforts that include racial considerations. The court demanded the review of Virginia state legislature districts in March and also ruled against Alabama’s state legislature districts in 2015.

[…]

Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the North Carolina ruling will be an “important decision” for the other districting efforts winding through the legal system, including those in Texas.

“It makes clear that this isn’t about any sort of talismanic test or anything like that, but that you actually have to delve into the facts and circumstances about how maps are drawn,” Li said. “So even a district that looks pretty and has nice lines, and everything like that, can still be problematic. And it’s really up to the trial court to delve into that.”

Democrats in Texas celebrated the ruling as a promising indication of how their arguments will fare moving forward.

“I am happy that North Carolina voters secured another victory against the national Republican crusade to undermine the voting power of African Americans and Hispanics in local, state, and federal elections,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who has been on the front lines of another legal case against Texas’ voter ID law.

Though the North Carolina decision may be a setback for Texas’ chances, it will not necessarily be determinative of the outcome. As Kagan reiterated, the specific details of the districts matter greatly. And newly confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch will be able to hear the Texas case, whereas the North Carolina arguments occurred before he took his seat on the court.

While Li said he was reticent to predict Paxton’s decision-making, he expects the North Carolina case will factor into how he handles Texas’ efforts moving forward.

“It should be a warning to states about how the court is going to look at these cases, but that doesn’t mean that Texas won’t appeal,” Li said. “It is fact-specific, and there’s a lot politically riding on these decisions, and sometimes taking your chance at the Supreme Court can be important.”

See these two Rick Hasen posts for all the technical details. This Trib story boils it down a bit and explains the relevance to Texas:

For years, courts have wrangled with a tough question: How to untangle the roles of race and partisanship in redistricting, the once-per-decade exercise of redrawing political maps to accommodate changing populations. It’s a crucial exercise because partisan gerrymandering is broadly viewed as constitutional, while race-based map-drawing is not.

But the legal calculus is complicated by the fact that black and Latino voters tend to favor Democrats, for instance.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling said plaintiffs could successfully challenge the use of race in redistricting, even if lawmakers claim they were motivated by politics.

“The sorting of voters on the grounds of their race remains suspect even if race is meant to function as a proxy for other [including political] characteristics,” said a footnote in Justice Elena Kagan’s majority decision.

[…]

Though Texas’ court dispute isn’t precisely the same as North Carolina’s, they both feature a similar line of defense — that partisanship, not race, motivated map drawers.

In one 2013 brief, for instance, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote “plaintiffs must prove that the Texas Legislature’s redistricting decisions were motivated by unconstitutional racial animus rather than a desire to maximize the Republican Party’s electoral prospects.”

But race and partisanship are intertwined in Texas, and opponents of the maps successfully argued — in some districts, at least — that the Republican-dominated Legislature advanced the party’s interests by looking to race.

Monday’s Supreme Court decision only adds heft to that idea, lawyers challenging the state say, making it more difficult for Texas and other states to argue politics can shield racial considerations.

“It undermines entirely their protestation that this is about politics: Yes, we’re picking apart Latino voting boxes and African-American voting boxes – we’re not doing it to them, we’re doing it to the Democratic Party,” said Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, a lead plaintiff in the case. “That’s just not going to hold up.”

Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for other plaintiffs in the case, said the Supreme Court “expressly rejected” part of Texas’ redistricting defense.

Texas’ defense now is that the 2013 map wipes away the problems with the 2011 map. The main problem with that is that some of the illegal districts are identical in the two maps, so one presumes something would need to be done about that. Thus, the court has asked the state if it might like to take a crack at drawing a new, legal map, maybe in a shudder special session. I rather doubt the state will take them up on this offer, on the grounds that the state surely figures it will win, but they have until the 26th to decide. Daily Kos and Slate have more.

Bill to ban straight-ticket voting advances in the Senate

This could happen.

Rep. Ron Simmons

A Texas Senate panel approved legislation Thursday that would end straight-ticket voting in all elections.

The Senate Committee on Business & Commerce voted 7-0 to send House Bill 25 for potential consideration by the full chamber. Two members, the only Democrats on the panel, were absent.

The vote came less than a week after the House passed the legislation, mostly along party lines. Starting with the 2018 elections, the bill would take away the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party.

[…]

In the Thursday hearing, proponents of the bill — including its Senate sponsor, Hancock — said it would force voters to make more informed decisions when casting their ballots. Critics suggested it could lead to voting rights violations.

“We believe that this takes away one method of voting that minority voters overwhelmingly use to choose the candidates of their choice,” said Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Maxey also questioned why the bill wound up in the Business & Commerce Committee, not the State Affairs Committee. Such a maneuver is “what the federal courts have noted as abnormal legislative procedure,” Maxey said.

A federal judge blocked a similar law last year in Michigan, saying it would disproportionately affect black voters. After that ruling came up in Thursday’s hearing, Hancock noted that the Michigan law moved through a “completely different court system than we’ll move through” if HB 25 becomes law and it is challenged.

Hancock also sought to reassure critics of the bill who said it would lead to longer lines at polling places, saying more locations would solve the problem.

See here for the background. Sen. Hancock is correct that more locations – and more machines per location – can solve the problems, but those words are meaningless without funding from the state to cover the costs. Not covering costs, going through a different committee, taking a vote when the two Dems on the committee were absent – none of this is going to look good when the inevitable lawsuit is filed.

House Democrats on Friday argued eliminating the “one-punch” choice would constitute an attack on Texans’ voting rights, particularly the disabled, the elderly and voters in large cities, where ballots and lines are longer and more people rely on public transportation.

Multiple lawmakers said minority voters rely on the straight-ticket option more than Anglos, evidence that was used as the basis of a 2016 federal court ruling that blocked a similar law in Michigan.

“This bill hasn’t been vetted,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City. “We don’t know how much it will cost; we don’t know if it will violate the Voting Rights Act of 1964. What we do know is that federal courts have ruled recently that laws passed by Texas discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters.”

Three federal court rulings since March have found that Texas intentionally discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters in voter ID and redistricting cases. The author of HB 25, Representative Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said repeatedly during debate Friday night that he was not aware of the rulings.

“I’ve been busy down here,” he said on the House floor, defending his lack of knowledge of the widely reported court decisions.

Representative Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, predicted the bill would be challenged “as a voter suppression bill.”

In the Michigan ruling last July, a federal judge wrote that abolishing the straight-ticket option would disproportionately impact African-American voters, who use it more often and already face longer voting lines in urban areas. The measure was designed “to require voters to spend more time filling more bubbles,” which could “discourage voting,” wrote Judge Gershwin A. Drain. The Supreme Court declined to hear Michigan’s appeal in September.

We’ll see what happens. There’s still time for the bill to be amended to address the concerns that Democrats have raised. I don’t expect that – why should the Republicans change their ways now? – but at least they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Who’s your lawyer?

Ross Ramsey has a simple question.

Not this guy

Do you remember the name of the lawyer who advised the Texas House and Senate when they wrote the 2011 voter ID bill? That’s the law a federal judge in Corpus Christi found to be intentionally discriminatory on the basis of race. An appeals court told her to throw out a particular argument without retrying the case and come to a fresh conclusion. She did, and she came to the same conclusion: intentional racial discrimination.

Do you remember the name of the lawyer who advised the House and the Senate — and don’t forget the governor at the time, Rick Perry — on congressional and legislative redistricting after the 2010 census, counseling them as they drew lines to maximize their Republican advantage? The legal expert who would have said “too much” if he had thought his clients might’ve stepped in a legal cow patty? They stepped in it just the same: A federal panel ruled lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

The state has stacked up a run of losses that could throw it back under federal supervision — forcing the great state of Texas to tuck tail and ask the federal government for permission for every change it makes to its voting and election laws. This state and many others used to discriminate habitually and creatively — so much so that federal law included Texas in the list of states that couldn’t be trusted to take care of their own citizens with fair laws and fair districts that would have allowed them to take part in the great democratic franchise, to choose the people who represent them.

Remember that lawyer’s name?

That would be Greg Abbott, in case you hadn’t figured it out. Now as noted in the article, it was ultimately the Republicans in the Lege who passed those bills, and for all we know they may eventually get bailed out by the Supreme Court. But still, you’d think a better lawyer might have given them better advice. No wonder Abbott hasn’t had much to say about any of this.

Justice Department will send election monitors to Pasadena

Okay.

Pasadena City Council

The U.S. Department of Justice is monitoring the Pasadena city elections as the suburb faces mounting federal scrutiny in the wake of a federal judge’s ruling that the city intentionally violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Hispanics.

Two observers will be present to ensure the Saturday elections are conducted smoothly, said C. Robert Heath, an attorney representing the city in the voting rights case.

But he said he didn’t know who asked for them, what their specific charge would be and which polling locations may be watched.

“They’re observers, and make sure everything goes right,” Heath said. “The city is happy to cooperate and we don’t have anything to hide.”

He said the city has already received preclearance from the Justice Department for its election contract with Harris County and for changes to polling locations that he described as “very minor.”

[…]

The justice department’s decision to use observers for the election drew praise from advocates for the city’s Hispanic voters.

“This week’s election is an important opportunity for all Pasadena voters, especially Latinos, to have their voices heard in selecting candidates to represent their interests and needs,” said Nina Perales with the the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lead attorney in the voting rights lawsuit. “MALDEF welcomes the U.S. Department of Justice, along with other observers who will watch this historic vote.”

Mayoral candidates Pat Van Houte and Gloria Gallegos, whose campaign sent out a press release about this item on Tuesday, are both quoted in the story with positive reactions to the news. I don’t know what to make of this any more than anyone else, but it can’t hurt to have some outside experts keeping an eye on things. Jeff Sessions is an evil troll, but there are still plenty of good rank and file people in the Justice Department. One hopes there will be nothing particularly interesting for them to observe.

Trib overview of the Pasadena elections

Good stuff.

Pasadena City Council

When voters head to the polls here Saturday, their city council and mayoral picks could have repercussions well beyond this working-class Houston suburb.

It will be the first election since a federal judge struck down the city’s 2013 redistricting plan as discriminatory, paving the way for a new balance of power at City Hall.

It comes as Texas Democrats redouble their efforts on the local level after a 2016 election that gave them ample reason to be optimistic about their future, especially in Harris County.

And it could offer a gauge of just how far down the ballot President Donald Trump, unpopular in even a deep-red state like Texas, is energizing Democrats.

For Pasadena, a city whose representation has long lagged its majority-Hispanic population — much like Texas writ large — it could actually be the “new day” that multiple candidates are promising.

“You have racial discord undergirding partisan politics,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “You’ve got one side trying to use the rules of the vote to change the structure of elections. And the other side is using the legal process … to fight the electoral damage that might result.”

“That,” Rottinghaus added, “sets the stage for Pasadena as an important part of the story in Texas’ transition to a new racial electorate.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party has endorsed five city council candidates in Pasadena — more than it has endorsed in any other municipality for the May 6 elections. Other Democratic groups are on the ground in the city, including Battleground Texas, which has been working to make the state more competitive for Democrats since the 2014 election cycle.

Much of their efforts are focused on two council races — in District A and District B — that are considered key to ushering in a new Democratic, predominantly Hispanic majority at City Hall. Battleground Texas is specifically working with District A candidate Felipe Villarreal and District B candidate Steve Halvorson, husband of Area 5 Democrats President Jennifer Halvorson, the only instances this election cycle where the group has directly partnered with candidates.

In those districts, which cover the heavily Hispanic north side of Pasadena, Democrats face a test similar to the one they face statewide: turnout.

“Those two districts — they vote overwhelmingly Democratic in November elections,” Jennifer Halvorson said. “Those voters don’t typically vote in May elections.”

See here for those endorsed candidates, among others. I’ll have one more look at early voting turnout tomorrow, though it will be limited in that I can’t tell you where the voters are coming from. Republicans are paying attention to the Pasadena elections as well, and the chair of the Harris County GOP, which as we know had such a stellar showing last year, says they are fully engaged. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on one election, but this is our first chance to vote in the Trump era, and it will tell us something one way or another. In the meantime, if you live in Pasadena or know someone who does, make sure you and they get out to vote on Saturday.

Court denies motion for appeals in redistricting case and sets trial date

We are moving along in this process after such a long long looooooooooooooooong wait to get here.

A three-judge panel on Monday denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to appeal a March ruling that said the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minority voters when it approved new congressional districts in 2011.

Texas needed the federal court’s permission to appeal because the ruling was not a final order in the case.

During a hearing Thursday in San Antonio, the judges voiced skepticism about letting a separate appeal move forward on the 2011 map while the panel began the final phase of the case — a claim that the current U.S. House and Texas House maps, adopted in 2013, also discriminated against African-American and Latino voters.

The court also rejected Paxton’s request to toss out claims that the 2013 maps were drawn to intentionally discriminate against minority voters in violation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Paxton had argued that the maps adopted by the Legislature in 2013 had originally been drawn by the three-judge court to cure voting rights problems found in the 2011 maps.

“The Legislature was entitled to presume that this court acted in good faith and without a racially discriminatory purpose,” Paxton argued.

But, the court ruled, the legal challenges focus on the intent of lawmakers, not judges, in adopting the U.S. House and Texas House district maps. Resolving those claims involves matters not appropriately decided on summary judgment, the order said.

See here and here for the background. The DMN adds on:

The court denied the state’s motions for summary judgments on its failure to create districts where there would be more Latino and black voting strength, and on assertions that the state used its “county line rule” to avoid doing so.

The county line rule stipulates that counties apportioned to districts must remain within that district. But plaintiffs argued that the state used the rule as a shield to avoid its obligation under the federal Voting Rights Act to create districts that would increase minority voting strength.

The judges denied a motion to resolve whether the state’s 2013 redrawing of House District 90 in Tarrant County violated the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment. Plaintiffs argued that the district was drawn to dilute Latino voting strength, but the state said the district has a contingent of active Latino voters and elected one, U.S. Rep. Ramon Romero, to its congressional seat.

The panel still needs to resolve the state’s requests and could issue a trial date this week. An attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, said last week he was confident there would be a summer trial. When asked Monday if that confidence remained, Jose Garza said: “You bet!”

Texas had also asked to appeal the court’s findings on the 2011 maps to the conservative-leaning 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where presumably it would have a more favorable audience. Because the case is being handled by a special panel, the court denied that motion, and any appeals will go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time those stories came out, the judges had not released an order specifying a trial date. Now they have.

With the 2018 election cycle looming, a federal judge panel has set July 10 as the start date for a trial over the state’s House and congressional political maps.

In an order filed Monday, the three judges presiding over the case scheduled the five-day trial following a pair of rulings that found Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in initially drawing each map in 2011.

“The Court is aware of the condensed schedule that must be implemented in light of the 2018 election deadlines, and expects counsel and the parties to work diligently to meet the deadlines contained herein,” the panel wrote.

Rick Hasen has a copy of the scheduling order, which lays out all of the deadlines, the scope of evidence, how many maps each side can propose, and more. Any appeals will go straight to SCOTUS. Lord willing we’ll have ourselves some maps by the end of September or so. Michael Li has more.

Two more redistricting updates

From KUT, will we have a new Congressional map for next year?

[Gerry Hebert, one of the plaintiff attorneys], says he’s hopeful there won’t be yet another election with the old maps.

“The timing of the court’s decision is absolutely giving us an opportunity to get a new congressional redistricting plan for the 2018 election,” he says.

There are still quite a few steps between that decision and new maps, though. First up: a court hearing at the end of the month. Michael Li with the Brennan Center for Justice, another member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, says it should answer some of the “what happens next” kind of questions.

“We need to know when the parties are supposed to file briefs, when they are supposed to propose maps. Is the Legislature going to be given a chance? Is it not?” he says. “All of that is going to have to be decided.”

Li says at some point, both sides might also have to settle whether the 2013 interim map the state is currently using should be thrown out. Li, like Hebert, argues the interim map is not totally different than the 2011 map that the court struck down.

[…]

There has already been one unforeseen twist in the case since the ruling.

The state recently filed a motion asking the trial court to give it permission to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is unusual. Typically such cases are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, Li, Hebert and others will have to make the case for why the decision on the 2011 map should not be overturned.

See here, here, and here for some background. As noted, the status conference next Thursday the 27th is where these issues will begin to get hashed out. The timeline proposed by the plaintiffs would have a final map in place by July 1. Lots of things can and surely will happen between now and then, but that’s the goal and we should have some clue how attainable it will be next week.

As we have discussed before, all of this activity so far is around the Congressional map. We now have a decision in the case involving the original State House map, but will we get a new map drawn in time for 2018 in that case as well?

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to hear the Texas redistricting case in which a three-judge federal panel ruled against the state in a 2-1 decision.

“The state of Texas purposely and intentionally, with full knowledge of what they were doing, discriminated against Latinos and African-American voters,” said Luis Vera, the national general counsel of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, who has argued the case over the last several years.

[…]

Vera said it’s expected if Governor Greg Abbott calls a special legislative session, Texas lawmakers will have the first crack at fixing the 2011 map. If not, the federal judges will step in, Vera said.

Vera said there also could be a state and federal compromise.

Vera said the lines must be redrawn by 2018. He said even then, a new map is required after the U.S. Census in 2020.

I’m glad to hear that the plaintiffs’ attorneys believe there will be a new map in place for 2018, but I’m sure the state will argue that the 2013 map fixed all the problems and will do everything in their power to delay any further action. SCOTUS already has a different gerrymandering case on its spring docket, which may or may not have any overlapping effect on this. As always, we should know a lot more after that status call on the 27th.

ADA voting rights lawsuit update

Interesting.

A federal judge in Houston put Harris County on notice Friday that the scope of accessibility violations at local polling places could be so vast that a special master may be needed to sort them out.

U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett said he is considering an independent review of the county’s 765 polling locations to ensure they are accessible to disabled voters.

The revelation, which could have far-reaching consequences for the county’s voting system, came to light during a routine hearing Friday in a civil rights suit filed several months before the November general election.

“We’re talking about something that really needs an intensive review,” the judge told the teams of lawyers in the courtroom. “There’s no blanket order I can give. We’re going to have to look at almost each of these sites or on a site-by-site basis.”

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit last year, accusing Harris County of violating the constitutional mandate that voting sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Among the violations cited in the lawsuit – in a county with more than 400,000 people with disabilities – are a lack of appropriate parking, ramps, sidewalks, entry ways, voting space and other mandatory accommodations.

The judge’s remarks drew praise from disability rights advocates.

“Bringing in a special master is monumental because you’re saying there is a problem and it needs to be watched,” said Toby Cole, a Houston attorney who has closely watched the case. “It would be a significant move to make sure that the rights of people with disabilities are protected, and voting is probably the most fundamental of those rights.”

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who oversees local elections, said the lawsuit is frivolous, politically motivated and centered on insignificant technicalities at sites the county doesn’t own.

“When the DOJ brought this lawsuit they had zero people who were complaining,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know of anyone who had an issue.”

Among the locations the Justice Department cited was the multiservice center at West Gray, which Stanart said was supposedly in violation “because if you were a 6 ½-foot blind person who came in the back door, your head would brush a limb.”

In another case, Stanart said, a handicapped parking spot had stripes painted, but the handicap sign wasn’t in the right place.

“Do they think these voters are idiots?” he said.

Stanart said his office picks the best location to serve voters in each precinct and believes, overall, that the county is largely in compliance.

Lex Frieden, a professor of rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine who helped President George H.W. Bush with early drafts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said he thinks the county should be proactive about fixing problems or amenable to making the changes the Justice Department has identified.

“I’m mystified about the defensiveness of the county,” said Frieden, who uses a wheelchair.

See here and here for the background. I have some sympathy for the county’s position. The original complaint indicates that most of the voting sites are compliant or can be made compliant with temporary fixes. There are only so many places that can be used for voting sites, and there may not be good alternatives in some places that would also satisfy requirements for minority voter access. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act is over 25 years old, and to say the least the county has a spotty record of civil rights compliance in other areas, like, say, bail practices. There’s only so much benefit of the doubt that they deserve, and given that a number of these problems could be fixed by basic infrastructure upgrades like sidewalks, there’s no reason why the county can’t take a proactive approach to resolving this. And yes, I know, these are city sidewalks and streets, but last I checked they were also in Harris County. Let’s get a comprehensive review of what the problems really are and how much it would cost to fix them, and figure it out from there.

Legislative maps found to have discriminatory intent

Wow.

Texas lawmakers intentionally diluted the political clout of minority voters in drawing the state’s House districts, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.

In a long-awaited ruling, the San Antonio-based judges found that lawmakers in 2011 either violated the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting the strength of minority voters statewide and specifically in a litany of House districts across Texas. Those districts encompass areas including El Paso, Bexar, Nueces, Harris, Dallas and Bell counties.

“The impact of the plan was certainly to reduce minority voting opportunity statewide, resulting in even less proportional representation for minority voters,” U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez wrote in a majority opinion, adding that map-drawers’ discussions “demonstrated a hostility” toward creating minority-controlled districts despite their massive population growth.

In some instances, the judges ruled, map-drawers’ use of race to configure some districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act instead “turned the VRA on its head.”

“Instead of using race to provide equal electoral opportunity, they intentionally used it to undermine Latino voting opportunity,” they added.

[…]

Thursday’s ruling hit in the final stretch of the 2017 legislative session, scheduled to wrap up at the end of May. But because the court did not immediately order that a new map be drawn, it is unclear whether lawmakers will be forced to take action before they leave Austin.

You can see the majority decision here and the findings of fact here. I haven’t read through them yet, and the early coverage is a bit sparse, but this is what I do know. This ruling is on H283, the map passed by the Legislature in 2011. It was never implemented because it was not precleared – H309 was the map used for the 2012 election. It was drawn by the court, but it was based on H283 as SCOTUS ruled that the interim map should defer to the legislative intent and not be based on the previously existing (per-cleared) map. In 2013, the Lege passed H358, which cleaned up a couple of issues that had been in contention, and that map was used for the 2014 and 2016 elections. This Texas Redistricting post zooms in on the places where the map was found to have had problems, and what is different between the 2011 and 2013 versions.

As with the Congressional case, there was a separate suit filed regarding H358, the 2013 map. That has not yet been adjudicated, and as we know the state is seeking to appeal the ruling on the 2011 Congressional map to the Fifth Circuit. There is a status call scheduled for April 27, which is to say next Thursday, at which a whole bunch of issues will be discussed, including the plaintiffs’ proposed calendar to get a new Congressional map in place for the 2018 primaries. It is not clear at this time what if any action will be taken for the legislative map, but I see no reason why something couldn’t be in place by, say September, which would be in plenty of time for candidate filings. Needless to say, that’s getting way ahead of things, but the goal needs to be to have a resolution for the next election. Anything else would be a mockery at this point. We’ll see how it goes. Statements from MALC and Rep. Garnet Coleman are beneath the fold, and Texas Redistricting, Rick Hasen, and the Lone Star Project have more.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron story has more.

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The status of Section 3

Lyle Denniston looks at a key aspect of the voting rights-related lawsuits in Texas.

About four years after the Supreme Court took away the government’s strongest authority to protect minority voters’ rights, a backup power under the federal Voting Rights Act – weaker and harder to use – is now being threatened, just as federal courts have begun applying it.

At issue now, as it was when the Supreme Court decided the case of Shelby County v. Holder in June 2013, is a form of government supervision of voting rights that goes by the technical term, “pre-clearance.” When operating against a state or local government, that means that officials cannot put any new voting law or procedure – however minor – into effect without first getting approval in Washington, D.C.

Three cases now developing in federal courts based in Texas are testing whether the variation of “pre-clearance” will take the place of what the Supreme Court scuttled. And there are already serious challenges facing that prospect, in each of those cases.

[…]

District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, became the first since the demise of Section 5 pre-clearance to impose Section 3 pre-clearance as a remedy for a discriminatory voting practice. That case involves a shift of the way voters in Pasadena, Texas, elect the members of the city council. Judge Rosenthal, after finding that the change discriminated intentionally against the city’s Hispanic voters, adopted a six-year period of pre-clearance for any future change in voting laws in that locality.

That case has now moved on up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And that is where one major threat to Section 3 remedies has arisen. It came in a legal brief filed by the state of Texas last month, supporting an appeal by the city of Pasadena as far as the city is challenging the remedy of Section 3 pre-clearance. That remedy, the state brief asserted, “must be sparingly and cautiously applied.”

The state’s filing argued that “misuse” of that mode of pre-clearance “threatens to re-impose the same unwarranted federal intrusion that Shelby County found could not be justified under the Constitution.” The brief contended that Judge Rosenthal had engaged in such a “misuse” of this provision by imposing it for only a single incident of discrimination – the one-time change in the method of electing the Pasadena city council.

The only circumstance in which a Section 3 pre-clearance remedy is valid, under either the specific language of Section 3, the reasoning of the Supreme Court in 2013, or the Constitution, the Texas brief contended, is when a judge can conclude that the discrimination was “pervasive, flagrant, widespread, and rampant.”

The Fifth Circuit Court has been centrally involved for years in Voting Rights Act cases, because the state of Texas (located in that Circuit) has so often been sued for discrimination in voting. If that court were to read the Section 3 pre-clearance provision in the limited way that the state seeks, that would be a major setback in this legal field.

The Pasadena ruling was in January, and it put Pasadena under preclearance through the 2021 elections. The practical effect of that is likely to be minimal in that Pasadena is unlikely to want or need to engage in redistricting any time soon (other things like voting locations and hours for elections conducted by the city of Pasadena are also in scope), but the precedent as the first use of Section 3 in the post-Shelby world is big. As Denniston notes, the voter ID case, in which a finding of intentional discrimination has already been made, and the legislative redistricting case where the matter of intent has not yet been resolved, could impose similar requirements on the state as well. If the intent finding in the voter ID case is upheld, that would affect redistricting even if no such ruling is made in that suit.

So, it’s not surprising that the state is arguing for a limited application of Section 3. There’s an awful lot at stake, and it all begins in Pasadena. I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Link via Rick Hasen.

Bill to fix voting interpreters considered

This needs to happen, and it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Almost three years after Mallika Das, a naturalized citizen who spoke Bengali, was unable to vote properly because she was not proficient in English, Texas lawmakers are considering a change to an obscure provision of Texas election law regarding language interpreters.

Members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday took up Senate Bill 148 by Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston, which would repeal a section of the state’s election code that requires interpreters to be registered voters in the same county they are providing help.

The measure will ensure that voters are able “to meaningfully and effectively exercise their vote,” Garcia told the committee. “This ensures that voters have the capacity to navigate polling stations, communicate with election officers and understand how to fill out required forms and answer questions directed at them by any election officer.”

Garcia’s proposal comes amid an ongoing legal battle over the state’s interpreter provision in a lawsuit brought by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of Das, who has since died, and the Greater Houston chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Because she had found it difficult to vote in the past, Das in 2014 brought her son, Saurabh, to help her cast her vote at a Williamson County polling place. But when her son told poll workers he was there to interpret the English ballot for his mother, they ran into the state’s interpreter requirements. Saurabh could not serve as an interpreter for his mother because he was registered to vote in neighboring Travis County.

[…]

One provision of the state election code allows for “assistors.” It says voters can receive help reading or marking a ballot and states that assistance “occurs while the person is in the presence of the voter’s ballot.”

Yet a separate provision allows voters to select an “interpreter” to help them communicate with an election officer and “accompany the voter to the voting station for the purpose of translating the ballot to the voter.” The interpreter, unlike an assistor, must be registered to vote in the same county.

In Das’ case, had her son simply told poll workers he was “assisting” his mother — and not that the assistance involved interpreting the ballot for her — he would have been able to go into the voting booth with her.

Garcia’s proposal would essentially consolidate all forms of assistance and remove any requirements related to voter registration.

While the measure has picked up support by the Texas Association of Election Administrators, representatives with the Harris County Clerk’s Office, including Ed Johnson, testified against Garcia’s proposal.

“In Harris County, we think the role of an interpreter is different to the role of an assistant,” Johnson said, adding that the issue was a currently a “moot point” because the law has been put on hold and court is “still working through that process.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The lawsuit in question is being appealed to the Fifth Circuit, but if Sen. Garcia’s bill were to pass, it would (I assume) moot the issue. I honestly don’t get the argument against this, but that doesn’t mean Stan Stanart isn’t going to do Stan Stanart things. Sen. Garcia’s bill was left pending in committee, and an identical bill by Rep. Ramon Romero was not withdrawn from the House Elections Committee schedule, so there has been no action taken yet. Contact your Senator on the State Affairs Committee if you want to see this bill get passed.

State wants to appeal redistricting ruling

From Texas Redistricting:

The State of Texas filed a motion [Wednesday] afternoon with the three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case, asking the panel to give the state permission to appeal the panel’s March 10 ruling on the state’s 2011 congressional plan (Plan C185) to the Fifth Circuit.

Texas told the court that it sought review of the panel’s decision that claims about the 2011 map had not been mooted by the state’s adoption of a new congressional map in 2013. Texas said that appeal to the Fifth Circuit, rather than the Supreme Court, was appropriate in this instance because the panel’s “Order is not final and does not grant or deny an injunction” and “is therefore ‘is one of the relatively rare situations in which a Court of Appeals is required to review the decision of a three-judge District Court.”

The motion said the redistricting plaintiffs opposed the request.

See here, here, and here for the background. And here’s the followup:

The three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case has set oral argument for April 27 on the request of the State of Texas for leave to appeal the panel’s March 10 congressional plan ruling to the Fifth Circuit.

In that ruling, the court found that a number of districts in the state’s 2011 congressional plan were intentionally discriminatory and/or otherwise violated the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act. The state contends that disputes about the 2011 map were mooted by the Texas Legislature’s adoption of the court-drawn interim plan on a permanent basis in 2013. The plaintiffs sharply disagree, arguing that a number of districts in the two plans are identical and also that questions of discriminatory intent are relevant to whether Texas should be put back under preclearance review using the bail-in provisions of section 3 of the Voting Rights Act.

The court’s order setting oral argument directed that the plaintiffs respond to state’s request to appeal by Friday, April 21, and gave the state until Tuesday, April 25, to file a reply.

Basically, we’ll know more about where things are headed after the hearing on the 27th. And may I say, it’s such a pleasure to see Michael Li updating his blog again.

Voter ID law declared discriminatory

Again.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge has ruled — for the second time — that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters in passing a strict voter identification law in 2011.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled Monday that Texas “has not met its burden” in proving that lawmakers passed the nation’s strictest photo ID law, know as Senate Bill 14, without knowingly targeting minority voters.

The 10-page ruling, if it withstands almost certain appeals, could ultimately put Texas back on the list of states needing federal approval before changing election laws. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list.

U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last July ruled that the Texas law disproportionally targeted minority voters who were less likely to have one of the seven forms of state-approved photo ID — a violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act. And Texas conducted the 2016 General Elections under a court-ordered relaxation of the rules.

But the appeals court asked Ramos, of Corpus Christi, to reconsider her previous ruling that lawmakers discriminated on purpose, calling parts of her conclusion “infirm.”

After reweighing the evidence, she came to the same conclusion, according to Monday’s ruling. Her decision did not identify what some have called a smoking gun showing intent to discriminate, but it cited the state’s long history of discrimination; “virtually unprecedented radical departures from normal practices” in fast-tracking the 2011 bill through the Legislature; the legislation’s “unduly strict” terms; and lawmakers’ “shifting rationales” for passing a law that some said was needed to crack down on voter fraud.

“The Court holds that the evidence found ‘infirm’ did not tip the scales,” Ramos wrote. Civil rights groups and others suing the state offered evidence that “established a discriminatory purpose was at least one of the substantial or motivating factors behind passage of SB 14,” she added.

See here and here for the background. This will of course be appealed, and who knows what will happen with that. In the meantime, as was the case with Pasadena, the court will decide what if any Voting Rights Act remedies will need to be applied to fix the problem. For starters, the voter ID law will be thrown out in its entirety, just as it had been enjoined while Section 5 was in effect and preclearance was required. The big question will be whether preclearance will be reinstated, and if so for how long. I’m pretty sure that it will be, but we’ll have to wait to see about that. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the win as we wait for the appeal. Statements from MALC and Sen. Sylvia Garcia are beneath the fold, and the Chron, Rick Hasen, the Texas Election Law Blog, the Current, and the Lone Star Project have more.

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Some Texas voting rights lawsuit updates

This has been a busy week for litigation related to voting rights issues in Texas. Here are updates to some cases, all of which happened this past week.

From Texas Redistricting:

The three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case has set a status conference for April 27, at 9:30 a.m. in San Antonio to discuss a trial schedule for the remaining claims in the case as well as the redistricting plaintiffs’ request to block the state’s use of its current congressional plan (Plan C235) on the grounds that defects found by the court in the 2011 plan continue to exist in the current plan. The court directed lawyers for the state to be prepared to discuss at the status conference “whether the Legislature intends to take up redistricting during this legislative session to remedy any violations that persist in the 2013 plans.”

The court also asked the parties to be ready to discuss the timing for its consideration of requests that Texas be bailed back into preclearance coverage under section 3© of the Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the court’s order setting a status conference can be found here.

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs want a new map in place by July 1.

A couple of days after that happened, the plaintiffs responded.

On Friday, plaintiffs in the Texas redistricting responded in a court filing to the State of Texas’ position that it was premature to consider the plaintiff’s request to block and require a redraw of the state’s congressional map (Plan C235).

In the filing, the plaintiffs told the court that while there was sufficient time to remedy constitutional defects in the map if the process began now, “delaying all relief until the Court schedules and holds another trial and issues another merits determination would raise a serious risk that Plaintiffs will be forced to vote in yet another election under unconstitutional districts.” The plaintiffs noting that filing for the 2018 Texas primary will open on November 11 and that a number of steps would have to occur to finalize any map changes, including redrawing precinct boundaries.

Circle April 27 on your calendar. We won’t have final answers to these questions then, but we should have some idea of what answers to expect.

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

[On April 3], Chief Judge Orlando Garcia of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied the state’s motion to dismiss Stringer v. Pablos, TCRP’s “motor voter” case.

This decision provides critical validation of the arguments advanced by the plaintiffs — disenfranchised Texas voters — who challenge voter registration processes at the Department of Public Safety under the National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, and the U.S. Constitution.

One by one, Judge Garcia considered the state’s arguments for dismissal and rejected them. Judge Garcia found the state’s current procedures “inconsistent with the plain language of the NVRA,” refusing to adopt “circular and self-defeating” interpretations of the NVRA offered by the defendants. Instead, the Judge expressly found that the NVRA applies to the thousands of online transactions Texans initiated through DPS.gov every day. This ruling means that the Secretary of State should be registering and updating voter registrations for all of these individuals as a matter of course unless they opt out. Moreover, any alleged interest in avoiding the upfront expense in creating a modern system cannot justify “the burden imposed on voters” under the Equal Protection Clause.

From the beginning, TCRP has argued that “motor voter” failures have excluded countless eligible voters from the Texas electorate. The judge acknowledged the systemic nature of the state’s actions, noting that the plaintiffs had “produced evidence that thousands of Texans submitted complaints to the state that related in some way to DPS’s processing of voter registration information through its website.”

Judge Garcia’s decision comes on the heels of sanctions imposed against Texas on February 17th for causing undue delay and for repeatedly, and without justification, ignoring court orders to provide the necessary documents to move forward with the case. TCRP represents the plaintiffs with co-counsel at Waters Kraus LLP.

Mimi Marziani, Executive Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said:

“Today’s opinion is a resounding victory for the countless Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s failure to adhere with federal law. With this decision, we are hopeful that we can resolve the case before the 2018 election so that every eligible voter can cast a ballot that counts.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Link via Rick Hasen.

From the Express News:

A federal judge has denied the state of Texas’ attempt to quash a lawsuit that challenges the way the state elects judges to the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

Seven Hispanic voters (six from Nueces County and one from El Paso) and a civic organization, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero Inc., allege in the suit that Latino candidates almost always lose statewide elections for judges to the two highest courts in Texas.

In an opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos ruled that all the plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit under the Voting Rights Act.

The judge rejected the state’s argument that the plaintiffs had failed to state a cause of action under Section 2 of the law, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that Section 2 applies to judicial elections.

The ruling clears the way for a trial, according to a news release from two law firms and an organization representing the plaintiffs.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. It’s not clear to me what a remedy for this looks like if the plaintiffs ultimately prevail, but in the meantime it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Rick Hasen has one of the press releases mentioned in the story; I couldn’t find any others googling around.

And finally, also from the Express-News:

Proposed legislative changes to Texas’ voter ID law won’t affect a lawsuit’s claim that the law is discriminatory, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, based in Corpus Christi, made the declaration in an opinion that also allowed the Justice Department to withdraw from the case.

The opinion follows a hearing in February in which — as directed by a federal appeals court, the U.S. Fifth Circuit — she heard more arguments about whether the law, SB 14, was passed with discriminatory intent.

The state argued that lawmakers planned fixes to be made in Austin with a measure called Senate Bill 5.

“The court holds that the Fifth Circuit did not direct this Court to withhold a decision on the discriminatory purpose claim and that the claim is not, and will not be, moot as a result of pending or future legislation,” Gonzales Ramos wrote.

The civil rights groups that brought the suit say the proposed changes, if passed in the newly introduced legislation, are irrelevant and that the GOP-controlled Legislature designed and passed the 2011 voter i.d. law with discriminatory purpose.

See here and here for some background. Judge Ramos did let the Justice Department officially withdraw from the case, so only the private plaintiffs will continue on. Her order can be seen here, in which she sets a status call on June 7 to discuss whether an evidentiary hearing on remedies is required, how long that might take, and what the deadlines for briefs and whatnot should be. This too came via Rick Hasen.

So the TL;dr summary of all this is:

1. The judges in the redistricting case will discuss wrapping up the other items and figuring out what to do with the Congressional map on April 27 with the litigants. This isn’t a hearing, just a discussion of what they all will be doing and when they will be doing it.

2. Similarly, the judge in the litigation to determine (again, under the standards set by the Fifth Circuit) whether the 2011 voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent will discuss the schedule and logistics with the attorneys on June 7.

3. Two previously filed lawsuits, one that alleges the state of Texas does not comply with federal Motor Voter laws and one that argues that the statewide election of judges violates the Voting Rights Act, survived motions to dismiss.

Whew!

Pasadena Council not happy with redistricting appeal

Or maybe they’re just not happy with soon-to-be-former Mayor Isbell. Either way, they showed it.

Pasadena City Council

In a sign of waning confidence in its legal position, the Pasadena City Council voted Tuesday to withhold payment from the law firm that’s trying to prove that the city’s redistricting plan doesn’t discriminate against Hispanics.

The 7-1 vote, with Mayor Johnny Isbell absent, exposed the degree to which the mayor has unilaterally pressed for an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the plan was discriminatory.

Council members complained they don’t fully understand the status of the lawsuit or of the work being done by Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP of Austin.

Councilman Sammy Casados said he and other members have asked the mayor to put an update on the agenda, but he has declined.

[…]

Even council members who previously have aligned themselves with Isbell and his redistricting plan expressed concern.

Morrison noted the absence of city staff who could address questions about the lawsuit.

“Where do we stand on this thing and what is the next step?” Morrison asked. “For that reason, I won’t support this (payment).”

Only Councilwoman Pat Van Houte voted to make the $50,000 payment, but she did so reluctantly, saying it was compensation for work already completed and pledging not to vote for future payments.

See here and here for some background. The May election is proceeding under the pre-redistricting Council map, as an appeal to the Fifth Circuit to halt the judge’s order for this election was denied. The appeal of the ruling on the merits is still in process, though several candidates for Mayor including CM Van Houte have said they will drop the appeal if elected. I’m sure the city of Pasadena will eventually pay the law firm for the work it has already done, but this vote is a mighty clear indication that they’re had enough.

State files opposition to motion for new Congressional maps

From Texas Redistricting:

The State of Texas has filed its opposition to redistricting plaintiffs’ request for an order that would permanently block the current Texas congressional map and require a redraw of the map for the 2018 election.

The state told the court that any ruling on the injunction request was premature since the court had only ruled on the now superseded 2011 congressional map (Plan C185) and not the court-modified map (Plan C235) that Texas adopted as its permanent congressional map in 2013. Although portions of the maps are the same, including at least two districts that the court found violated the Constitution, the state said the court needed first to decide the rest of the claims related to the 2013 congressional map as well as weigh whether the state’s adoption of the 2013 map remedied findings that the 2011 map had been adopted with discriminatory intent.

The three-judge panel has not indicated whether it will hold oral argument on the plaintiffs’ injunction request.

See here, here, and here for the background. The plaintiffs’ motion included a schedule that would wrap everything up with an approved map by July 1, more than enough time for people to file for whatever district and mount a campaign. There are too many moving parts to know what may happen – remember, the court has not ruled on the legislative map yet – so we are back in the familiar position of waiting on the judges. In the meantime, Michael Li published potential alternate maps for CD27 and CD35, based on maps that had been previously filed during the 2011 and 2013 sessions. We could get an updated map fairly quickly because we are not starting from scratch, if indeed we are going to get a new map.

Voter ID 2.0 passes out of the Senate

Meh.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Senate tentatively approved legislation Monday that would revamp the state’s voter identification rules, a response to court rulings that the current law discriminates against minority voters.

Following more than an hour of debate, the chamber voted 21-10 to move the bill to a final vote, likely later this week.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texas voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

“I’m committed to constitutionally sound photo identification at polling places,” Huffman said.

Voting rights advocates have called the expanded list of options an improvement over the current embattled law, but they have pushed for ID options beyond those included in Huffman’s bill and raised concerns over the strict penalties for false claims.

[…]

“My intent with the bill is to take the roadmap that the 5th Circuit gave us,” Huffman said.

But those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID — by falsely signing the “reasonable impediment” form — could be charged with a third-degree felony under Huffman’s bill. Such crimes carry penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso was among Democrats seeking to soften the punishment, calling it too harsh for the crime — particularly in cases where a Texan is otherwise casting a legal vote.

“It has the effect of scaring people, intimidating people,” he said. “We should not be putting people in jail for up to 10 years for a lie that is frankly of no consequence.”

See here for the background. The bill was amended to require “intentionally” making a false claim about not having ID in order to be prosecuted, which I appreciate. The whole thing still suffers from “solution in search of a problem” syndrome, but depending on how the question of discriminatory intent gets resolved, in the end it may not matter. Even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect there will be another lawsuit down the line, perhaps after someone gets busted. Voter ID will suck a little bit less under SB5, but it’s still voter ID.

An ironic might-have-been on redistricting

From Rick Casey.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The three judges who decided the case include one Democrat and two Republicans. Ironically, the decision may have gone the other way if one of the judges hadn’t been punished for joining in an earlier ruling in the case. Here’s the backstory.

Judge Rodriguez, a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Texas law school, was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Perry. He lost in the Republican primary, however, when he had to stand for election. He returned briefly to private practice before being appointed to a federal district bench here by President George W. Bush.

Back in 2013, Rodriguez was asked to fill out the voluminous paperwork to be considered for promotion to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. President Barack Obama had selected a Democratic judge from Corpus Christi, but the two Republican senators reportedly made it clear they would block her nomination. So the Obama administration lit on Rodriguez — a nonideological choice who had been appointed to important benches by two Texas Republican leaders.

But the appointment languished until 2015 when, a friend of Rodriguez said, he was told his name was withdrawn because of a lack of support from the two senators. The reason: His previous rulings in the redistricting case.

Had Rodriguez been elevated to the appellate court, he might well have been replaced with a more conservative Republican on the three-judge panel hearing the redistricting case. The 2-1 decision could have gone in the other direction, with Rodriguez’s replacement joining the very conservative third member of the panel, Judge Jerry Smith of Houston.

We don’t know for certain that the ruling would have been different had Judge Rodriguez not been on the district court. I don’t know what the overall population of judges in that district is like, and I suppose the plaintiffs could have filed in a different district. For what it’s worth, where I think the plaintiffs got lucky was in having two judges of color hearing the case. We’ll never know how things might have been, but I for one am glad with how they turned out.

On a tangential note, this Texas Lawyer story from awhile ago talks about how the Fifth Circuit changed during the Obama years.

At first glance, the math confronting President Barack Obama’s three appointees on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit appears daunting.

If you include senior members of the bench, Obama’s appointees—Judges James Graves, Stephen Higginson, and Gregg Costa—are outnumbered more than 4-to-1 by judges who were chosen by Republican presidents.

Dig deeper, however, into court events and listen to appellate lawyers who make their livelihoods practicing before the Fifth Circuit and a more nuanced picture emerges. In the last eight years, the Fifth Circuit bench has begun shifting away from predictable conservative patterns, the appellate lawyers said.

Although Obama appointees may only be part of that change, they are using their youth, vigor and intellectual curiosity to influence outcomes, according to appellate lawyers including Jane Webre, a partner in Austin’s Scott Douglass & McConnico who practices civil appellate law and handles most of her firm’s appeals.

“It has moved away from how staunchly conservative it was known to be,” said Webre, who works with associates who have recently clerked for the Fifth Circuit.

Senior Fifth Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley, an appointee of former President Jimmy Carter, ranks among many who heap praise on the Obama picks. Reavley, who served as a state district and Texas Supreme Court justice before he started on the Fifth Circuit bench, observed its judges in the ’60s courageously enforce emerging civil rights protections. Asked by Texas Lawyer recently if he longed for the days of those judges, Reavley said Obama’s three appointees were equally equipped with the smarts and dispositions to handle such challenges: “I don’t think politics would enter into their decisions,” Reavley said.

Kurt Kuhn of Austin’s Kuhn Hobbs agrees. “They are not doctrinal. They are known as fair and not predisposed to any particular side,” Kuhn said.

[…]

On the Fifth Circuit, Higginson, Costa and Graves share the bench with six judges tapped by George W. Bush, six by Reagan and two by George H.W. Bush. Former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Carter together had appointed only five of the judges currently serving on the Fifth Circuit. Two vacancies are currently pending.

Obama’s ability to shape the Fifth Circuit has been hampered by the powerful sway held over the nomination process by Texas’ two Republican senators. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also appoint the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee, which recommends federal judicial candidates to the White House.

It was three years before Obama made his first appointment to the Fifth Circuit. David Prichard, the committee’s chairman and partner in the San Antonio office of Prichard Hawkins Young, has no expectation that the court’s two vacancies will be filled before Obama leaves office.

“Those positions are just carefully negotiated between the Texas senators and the occupants of the White House,” Prichard said.

And yet, despite Obama’s difficulty seating judges on the Fifth Circuit, the passage of time and societal change has tempered the Fifth Circuit and made it less conservative, said Webre of Scott Douglass.

Given how few appointments he has made, Webre added, “I don’t know if we can say: ‘Thank you, President Obama,’ for those changes.”

But she, Gunn and Townsend detect a change. Before Obama took office, Webre and associates at her firm who clerked recently at the Fifth Circuit counted the active full-time judges on that court: There were 13 Republican and four Democratic appointees. That ratio has since shifted to 10-5.

But then Webre and the associates adjust for individual judges’ tendencies, regardless of who appointed them. “Not all Republicans are created equal,” Webre explained.

She and the former clerks put asterisks beside some of the Republican-appointed judges—she wouldn’t say which judges specifically—to denote that they lean less conservative than their fellow Republican appointees. Webre’s estimate is that eight of 15 judges are moderate or liberal compared with seven who are very conservative.

That has made a difference when lawyers receive an unfavorable panel decision.

“Now,” Webre said, “seeking an en banc hearing is a realistic venture.”

That story was published just before the November election, and I had flagged it at the time to discuss how things might change even more for the better post-Obama. Needless to say, that premise was scotched shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, this seemed like a reasonable time to dredge it up. Maybe we’ll get to discuss it again in a more positive way in four years.

Motion filed to block current Congressional map

From the Lone Star Project.

Moments ago the Plaintiffs in the ongoing Texas congressional redistricting case filed a joint motion asking the San Antonio Federal District Court for an injunction to block the use of the current congressional map during the 2018 mid-term elections.  The motion also suggests a schedule to adopt a new map for use in the 2018 elections.

On March 10, the three-judge Federal District Court in San Antonio with jurisdiction in the Texas case ruled that the congressional plan adopted by Texas Republican leaders in 2011 was intentionally discriminatory in violation the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.  The Court found violations in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin and the DFW area.

The Plaintiff’s motion explains that the current congressional map retains many of the violations identified by the Court in the 2011 map; therefore, it should not be used in the 2018 election.  Plaintiffs wrote:

“Delaying entry of an injunction following this Court’s finding that the 2011 congressional plan was illegal and unconstitutional, and that elements of these violations persist in C235, would unjustifiably risk forcing Plaintiffs, and, indeed, millions of Texans to elect members of Congress under a legally invalid plan.”

The motion also lays out a timeline to configure a remedial map to use in the 2018 elections.  Texas Republican leaders are given until May 5, 2017 to submit a remedial plan to the Court. Plaintiffs will be required to respond to the state’s map by May 12, 2017.  An order confirming a final remedial map would be issued by July 1, 2017.

Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle released the following statement:
“Every Texan is harmed when statewide leaders engage in intentional discrimination, and no Texan should be subject to the results of an election conducted under an intentionally discriminatory congressional plan.

“The federal court in San Antonio has made clear time and again that they will protect the rights of Texans, and the plaintiffs have laid out a common-sense process to put a legal map in place.”

See here and here for the background. We’re going to need to get something going if there’s to be a chance to have a proper map in place for 2018. (And remember, this is just the Congressional map. We’re still waiting for a ruling on the legislative map, which may require the same process.) As the Trib notes, the state will oppose this motion, so that may draw things out further. We’ll see how it goes.

So what does that redistricting ruling really mean?

The Trib has a good explainer.

So will the Legislature redraw the congressional map? And if so, when?

Here’s where it gets tricky. Friday’s order made it clear that the 2011 map cannot stand, but it did not order anyone to immediately redraw it. That might be because that map wasn’t actually in effect.

Amid the legal wrangling, Texas has conducted elections with a court-approved interim map. [Michael] Li, the redistricting expert [with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School], said the court must still rule on that map, drawn in 2013. It’s not clear when that will happen. Striking down the 2013 map is something of a formality, Li said, because the boundaries of two of its districts — Farenthold’s 27th and Doggett’s 35th — are identical to those drawn in 2011.

It’s anybody’s guess when Texas will get new maps — or even who will draw them. Generally, courts will give lawmakers another crack at drawing a map that’s been struck down. But plaintiffs could argue that Texas can’t be trusted to try again, pushing instead for an alternative fix.

Can Texas appeal Friday’s ruling?

Sure. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton could ask the U.S Supreme Court to weigh in on the case. But it’s not clear when or whether the Republican will do that — largely because of how open-ended the ruling is.

“Since this is an interim order that does not propose any relief, the State is evaluating its options, which may be impacted by any future court rulings,” Kayleigh Lovvorn, a Paxton spokeswoman, told the Texas Tribune on Monday.

What about Texas’ state House and Senate maps?

The courts have settled squabbles over the state Senate map, but a challenge to the House boundaries is still pending. It’s not clear when the judges will rule.

What are the larger implications of Friday’s ruling?

Experts call it huge that the judges found “intentional” discrimination in the congressional map — a condition that could ultimately put Texas back on the list of states that need permission to change their election laws.

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling — Shelby County v. Holder — sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list. But Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act includes a “bail-in” provision allowing courts to put a state back under supervision (a process called “preclearance”) if it is found to have knowingly discriminated in changing its election laws.

“This is a big test of whether the Voting Rights Act still has some teeth,” Li said.

Before the Shelby County ruling, Texas needed the U.S. Department of Justice’s signoff to change its election laws. If courts again ordered such supervision, Texas could find a sympathetic ear from the current U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who applauded the Shelby County decision in 2013.

But if the judges give Texas a supervisor, they could choose someone other than the Justice Department — another court, for instance.

“The court has broad discretion in defining how preclearance will work,” Li said. “Section 3 [of the Voting Rights Act] is very untested, and this case will help define what a court can and cannot do.”

See here for the background. If you want even more from Michael Li on this, see what he has to say at Rick Hasen‘s place. I didn’t know that about Section 3. I had been skeptical about bail-in to preclearance having much effect since the Sessions Justice Department is a cruel joke, but if Texas has to get pre-approval on any changes from a federal court, that changes things. And with this ruling, there may be two cases that require preclearance again. Maybe this time, crime really didn’t pay. In any event, at this point we need 1) a remedy for the Voting Rights Act violations, which begins with a new map; 2) some process for drawing that new map – it could be the court, if the plaintiffs can argue that the Lege cannot be trusted; 3) a ruling on the State House map, and a remedy for it if it too is ruled to be illegal; and 4) a ruling on Section 3 bail-in. Time is officially of the essence, so let’s hope we start getting answers to these questions soon.

Another voter ID update

From the Lone Star Project:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Last week, the Trump Department of Justice brought press attention to the ongoing Texas voter ID lawsuit that remains pending before Federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi. The Trump DOJ withdrew long-standing federal government claims that the Texas law was adopted with the intent to discriminate against Hispanic and African American Texans.

By withdrawing its claims of discriminatory intent in the Texas case, the Trump DOJ, led by embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sent its first clear signal that the DOJ under Trump will not responsibly defend the U.S. Voting Rights Act or block discrimination against minority citizens.

Moreover, in their brief to Judge Ramos, the Trump DOJ argued that she should delay her ruling on discriminatory intent until the current Texas Legislature decides on the adoption of a new Texas voter ID law.  The argument is extraordinary in that it somehow reasons that the intentions of a Legislature convened in 2017 can repair or erase the discriminatory intentions of a different Legislature convened in 2011.

On Tuesday, allied plaintiffs challenging the Texas voter ID law, who include U.S. Congressman Marc Veasey (TX33 – Dallas/Fort Worth), filed their brief responding to the Trump DOJ.  The brief is relatively short and easy to follow.  The key points made are:

  • The Trump DOJ withdrew its claims of discriminatory intent based on political rather than substantive legal considerations.  They failed to cite any new evidence refuting discriminatory intent.
  • Action by the current Texas Legislature to consider or pass a new voter ID law does not reflect on the intent of the Legislature five years ago, and should not affect Judge Ramos’ actions or ruling on discriminatory intent now.
  • Judge Ramos should issue her ruling on discriminatory intent now, while holding her final judgement and prescribing a remedy until the Legislature completes whatever actions it may take on new voter ID legislation.

Judge Ramos is expected to issue her response to the briefs filed soon.

See here for the background. I didn’t think much of the state and DOJ’s arguments last week, and I don’t think any more of them now. Between this and the redistricting decision, the potential to substantially roll back some of the most egregiously restrictive voting laws of this decade is great.

Court rules several Congressional districts were illegally drawn

Bam!

Some of Texas’ 36 congressional districts violate either the U.S. Constitution or the federal Voting Rights Act, a panel of federal judges ruled Friday.

In a long-delayed ruling, the judges ruled 2-1 that the Texas Legislature must redraw the political maps it most recently used for the 2016 elections.

Specifically, they pointed to Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, takes in most of the Texas-Mexico border and is represented by Republican Will Hurd of Helotes; Congressional District 27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and Congressional District 35, a Central Texas district represented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

The 166-page ruling by the San Antonio-based district was the latest in a complicated case that dates back to 2011, and comes just two election cycles away from the next U.S. Census — when the state would draw a new map under normal circumstances.

In 2013, the district court found evidence that lawmakers intentionally discriminated when redrawing the boundaries. But the U.S. Supreme Court soon complicated the case when it struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act that had forced Texas to seek permission before making changes to election procedures.

But that didn’t end the legal battle. The U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs pressed on in the case, and Texas held elections using interim maps drawn by judges.

In its decision Friday, the court still found that “mapdrawers acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength or otherwise violated the Fourteenth Amendment” of the Constitution.

“The Court finds that this evidence persuasively demonstrates that mapdrawers intentionally packed [concentrated certain populations] and cracked [diluted certain populations] on the basis of race (using race as a proxy for voting behavior) with the intent to dilute minority voting strength,” U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez wrote in the majority opinion.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals called the case moot under previous rulings, and he  sharply criticized the Justice Department.

Tale about a Friday news dump – I literally saw this on Facebook just before going to bed Friday night. We have been waiting forever for a ruling in this case. Note that this is only half of what we have been waiting for – there is still a ruling to come on the State House map, too. But for now, the status of the 2018 elections has changed. The Lone Star Project adds on.

The court singled out violations in the Corpus Christi region involving District 27 (Farenthold – R), in the South Texas/Border region involving District 23 (Hurd – R) and in the Austin to San Antonio region involving District 35 (Doggett – D). The Court also ruled that minority voters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were illegally cracked under the 2011 map.

While it is too early to know exactly what changes will be made, it is fair to read the opinion as requiring that Hispanic voters put into Anglo-controlled CD27 in the current map must be returned to an effective Hispanic district, that Hispanic voting strength weakened in District 23 must be restored, and that District 35 in the Austin to San Antonio corridor will have to be modified to reunite minority voters in a far less fragmented district centered in Austin.

In Dallas/Fort Worth, the creation of District 33 (Veasey – D) in the current map may have resolved some of the blatant violations under the 2011 map; however, arguments will be made to repair remaining cracked Hispanic and African American neighborhoods in Dallas and Tarrant counties.

The ruling is a major victory for minority citizens and their advocates before the court. Minority advocacy groups including LULAC, NAACP, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and citizen plaintiff groups led by Congressman Marc Veasey and State Representative Eddie Rodriguez had the courage to challenge the GOP map and the tenacity to stay with a long and difficult court battle. Their efforts have defended and protected the voting rights of thousands of otherwise disenfranchised Texas citizens. The Lone Star Project has been engaged in the Texas redistricting battle from the onset and will continue to provide support to key plaintiffs in this important effort.

We should expect the San Antonio Court to schedule a hearing soon to discuss the additional deliberations needed to fully resolve the case and to reach a final remedy. It is also likely that Governor Greg Abbott will refuse give up Texas GOP efforts to protect a discriminatory redistricting process and will direct state attorneys to explore appeal options.

I’d say it’s not “likely” that Abbott appeals, it’s a 100% gold-plated certainty. Rick Hasen quotes from the majority decision to explain what that “minority voters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were illegally cracked under the 2011 map” means:

Plaintiffs have established a § 2 violation, both in terms of intent and effect, in South/West Texas. Plaintiffs have shown that seven compact majority-HCVAP districts could and should be drawn there that would substantially address the § 2 rights of Hispanic voters in South/West Texas, including Nueces County. Defendants’ decision to place Nueces County Hispanic voters in an Anglo district had the effect and was intended to dilute their opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.

Meanwhile, race predominated in the drawing of CD35, and Defendants’ decision to place majority- in Travis County was not to comply with the VRA but to minimize the number of Democrat districts in the plan overall. Plaintiffs have established a Shaw-type equal protection violation with regard to CD35. Plaintiffs also establish a Shaw-type equal protection violation with regard to CD23. In addition, Defendants’ manipulation of Latino voter turnout and cohesion in CD23 denied Latino voters equal opportunity and had the intent and effect of diluting Latino voter opportunity. Nueces County Hispanics and Hispanic voters in CD23 have proved their § 2 results and intentional vote dilution claims. The configurations of CD23, CD27, and CD35 in Plan C185 are therefore invalid.

Plaintiffs fail to proffer a demonstration plan accompanied by sufficient evidence to demonstrate that additional compact minority districts could be drawn in DFW or Houston, taking into account traditional redistricting principles and communities of interest. However, they are not precluded from raising § 2 results claims with regard to Plan C235 during the trial on that plan. Plaintiffs have proved intentional vote dilution through packing and cracking in DFW and also establish a Shaw-type racial gerrymandering claim with regard to CD26, but not CD6. However, they fail to prove intentional vote dilution in the Houston area, and fail to prove that mapdrawers acted with racially discriminatory purpose when drawing the districts represented by the African-American Congresspersons.

Well, okay, we’ll need to see a proposed remedy to understand what that means, but the bottom line is that four districts could be directly affected – CDs 23, 26, 27, and 35 – with ancillary changes to some number of adjoining districts. In a subsequent post, Hasen provides some extra guidance to this decision.

2. Bail in. It probably is not obvious to those not steeped in this area, but the big fight here is not about these particular districts (although that is important) but whether Texas gets put back under Section 5 preclearance for up to 10 years. That is possible under Section 3, the “bail-in” provision of the VRA which gives a court the ability to impose preclearance after a finding of intentional race discrimination. That finding is here, and the case is still going to go forward on that issue (as well as some other issues). Further, the finding of intentional race discrimination will almost certainly be relied on if, as I expect, the trial court in the Texas voter id case, finds intentional racial discrimination and orders bail in. So this is huge. (The caveat is how a Trump DOJ would enforce such rights if Trump is still in office. I’m not optimistic, and there’s no appeal of a DOJ decision to grant preclearance. Preclearance of post-2020 redistricting will depend on who wins the 2020 presidential elections.)

3. Race or party. I have been writing a lot about the race or party question: what to do about claims of racial discrimination when, as in the American South, race and party are so closely correlated. The majority approach, is subtle and sophisticated on this question, and seems to fall mostly on the party as a proxy for race (“party as race”) approach to the question. When you make it harder for minority voters to exercise political power for your own political reasons (such as protecting incumbents or your party), this counts as intentional race discrimination. Judge Smith takes the “race or party” approach, and he believes he knows what’s “really” going on: this is all about party, rather than race. It is either blind to the realities or ignoring the fact that these two criteria are really inseparable in Texas.

4. The remedy and what comes next. The trial court does not order anything to happen right now. The parties will fight about the remedy. Likely Texas will get a chance to redraw districts with some deference to Texas as to that which is not a violation. The parties will fight over the plans. And this will get dragged out. But presumably there will be new maps in place for the 2018 congressional elections, unless the Supreme Court intervenes. I fully expect Texas to try to get the Supreme Court to intervene in the interim. At most these lines would last 2 elections, and then we are back to a new round of redistricting. And this shows what is lost by preclearance. We’ve now had three elections that arguably should never have taken place under these lines.

There’s more, so read the rest. If this case proceeds from here as the post-2003 redistricting litigation did, we will get a bunch of November of 2018 special elections in these Congressional districts, with the possibility of special elections in some number of redrawn State House districts as well. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, then you’re reading the wrong blog. Daily Kos and the Chron have more.

We could be at the end of the road of the Pasadena redistricting case

Mike Snyder continues his reporting on the Pasadena redistricting litigation. He notes that while the whole thing was concocted and pushed forward by current Mayor Johnny Isbel, several of the candidates to succeed Isbell are not interesting in picking up where he will leave off.

Pasadena City Council

Attorneys in the case say the city’s appeal is likely to be unresolved when Pasadena voters choose a new mayor on May 6. Seven candidates are seeking to replace Isbell, who has led the city off and on over 26 years but can’t run this year because of term limits. And at least three of the candidates say they’ll drop the appeal if they win.

U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal “spent a week and a half hearing from many witnesses, looking at a lot of information, and made a decision,” Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, a candidate for mayor, told my colleague Kristi Nix. “The city has spent almost $2 million on the lawsuit already, and I don’t think it is in our best interest to spend more public money on this.”

Another candidate, former state Rep. Gilbert Peña, agreed: “If elected, I definitely would stop the appeal process,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things we could do with this money other than give it to lawyers.”

Candidate David Flores, a former city employee who runs a construction company, told Nix that the city’s money would be better spent on infrastructure than on additional legal fees.

Councilman Jeff Wagner, a retired Houston police officer, told me he would ask the City Council to vote on whether to continue the appeal if his bid for the mayor’s office is successful. Pasadena, like Houston, has a strong-mayor form of government, and Isbell has exercised his authority on this issue without consulting the council. But Wagner said he has a different leadership style.

“I’ll put this in front of the council, we’ll have a discussion and we’ll make a decision,” said Wagner, who was one of four council members who voted with Isbell to put the new council structure on the ballot in 2013. (Van Houte cast one of the four votes against the plan.)

I couldn’t reach the other three candidates: San Jacinto College trustee John Moon, former state Rep. Robert Talton, and Gloria Gallegos, a Pasadena school district administrator.

See here, here, and here for some background. If I had to guess, I’d posit that Gallegos is in the same camp as Van Houte, Pena, and Flores, while Talton is either on board with the appeal or would put it before Council, as does Wagner. It would be good if all three candidates stated their position for the record, and for all interested voters in Pasadena to know where all the candidates stand.

Once more with feeling on voter ID

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern says that Tuesday’s arguments about whether Texas’ voter ID law was enacted with discriminatory intent or not went well for the plaintiffs, and not for the state or its new buddies in the Justice Department.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to be all about the question of intent. But the DOJ’s last-minute move to side with Texas rather than the coalition challenging the law threw it for a loop, necessitating a discussion of the agency’s new position. John Gore, the deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, spoke briefly, urging the court to dismiss the discriminatory intent claim. (The agency’s acting head of the Civil Rights Division, Thomas Wheeler, recused himself because he advised Texas legislators as they wrote the bill. Small world!) Gore pointed out that Texas is considering an amendment that will allegedly address the legal problems with the bill, SB14.

“If it follows through,” he said, “and we are hopeful it will, that resolves this case.”

But does it? Judge Ramos wasn’t so sure.

“How,” she asked, “does a new bill affect a ruling on discriminatory purpose on SB14?” After all, an amendment can’t alter the legislature’s intent in passing the original bill. (The Trump administration may face a similar problem in its efforts to scrub Islamophobia from its next travel ban.)

“It creates a new legislative mosaic,” Gore said, with lots of feeling, if not much logic. “It paints a new picture of Texas’ intent with regard to voter ID.”

Chad Dunn, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the case, tried his best not to look aghast and very nearly succeeded.

“The Voting Rights Act does not deal around the edges,” he said in rebuttal to Gore. “It requires courts to strike down a discriminatory law and all of its tentacles. Texas may change the staging or the dress of SB14, but the underlying architecture remains.”

To Dunn, the key problem with SB14 is the limitations it places on the forms of ID voters may use at the polls. A handgun license, for instance, is sufficient to cast a ballot; a student ID is not. Minorities are significantly less likely to have the required IDs than whites. Dunn argues that SB14 was crafted with the aim to create “a disparate impact on Latinos.” Even if Texas remedies this problem, its original bill may still have been enacted with discriminatory intent, meriting federal oversight of future voting-related laws.

In her previous ruling, Ramos laid out a comprehensive case demonstrating why the legislature had intentionally endeavored to restrict the suffrage of minority voters. On Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiffs took turns reciting her reasoning back to her. The argument here is not rocket science. In support of SB14, the Texas legislature professed fears about voter impersonation that were unsupported by evidence. It also approved IDs that minorities are much less likely to have and rejected amendments designed to lessen the bill’s impact on minorities. Gov. Rick Perry declared the bill an “emergency item,” allowing the legislature to rush it through committee to an up-or-down floor vote, altering or suspending multiple procedural rules along the way. And it did all this in the face of dramatic demographic changes that could give minorities unprecedented influence over state representation.

In short—as Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said on Tuesday—“your honor, and the United States, got this right the first time around.” The court, Rosenberg said, “may infer from these shifting and tenuous rationales that there is pretext at work.” There is, he alleged, “a mountain of evidence” that Texas acted with racist intent, even if it is all circumstantial. Janai Nelson, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, hit the same themes. “An overwhelming majority of factual findings unassailably supports your previous opinion,” she told Ramos. “The legislature designed SB14 with surgical precision to discriminate against minority voters. Republicans chose IDs that that Anglos were more likely to possess and excluded IDs minorities are more likely to possess. Impersonation fraud is largely mythical.” And “this aggressive fixation on an illusory problem” is evidence of unlawfully discriminatory intent.

Up until this point, Ramos remained mostly quiet, though she took extensive notes. When Angela Colmenero stood up to argue on behalf of Texas, the dynamics shifted dramatically. Colmenero, aided by a nifty PowerPoint presentation, explained that in passing SB14, the legislature was acting upon extensive evidence that voter impersonation was a serious problem in Texas. Ramos suddenly leaned forward, looking genuinely confused.

“Why was this not introduced at trial?” she asked, referring to the lengthy bench trial she held in 2014 during which Texas could not prove that voter fraud was real. “Texas,” she continued, “did not present any evidence about any of these things.”

Colmenero admitted that the purported evidence was really just testimony in House and Senate committee hearings, testimony that was not supported by any proof.

“But that’s all hearsay,” Ramos observed. “People saying X, Y, Z—that’s not evidence for a trial court. ‘So-and-so’s [deceased] grandfather voted’—that’s not court evidence.”

See here for the background. I Am Not A Lawyer, but having the judge lecture you about standards of evidence seems like an indication that your case is not going well. Nonetheless, as the Express News notes, Judge Ramos has asked for briefs on how the voter ID 2.0 bill will affect the case, with a March 21 deadline. We’ll see what happens then. The Brennan Center, the NYT, and the Chron have more.

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.

Voter ID 2.0

Well, this is interesting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Top Texas Republicans unveiled legislation Tuesday that would overhaul the state’s voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that have found that the current law discriminates against minority groups.

Filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texans who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has granted the bill “priority” status, carving it a faster route through the Legislature. Nineteen other senators have signed onto the bill, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is still defending the current ID law in court — applauded the legislation Tuesday.

In a statement, Paxton said the proposal would both ensure the “the integrity of the voting process” and comply with court rulings that have found fault with the current law, considered the nation’s strictest.

Chad Dunn, a Houston-based attorney for groups suing the state over that law, called the legislation “a step in the right direction.”

“The state is acknowledging the federal court’s conclusion that the (current) law is discriminatory,” he said Tuesday.

I’ll reserve judgment for now, but this seems like a sign that the Republicans are not terribly optimistic about their chances with the ongoing lawsuit, with the question in district court about discriminatory intent. Actually, we don’t have to suppose, because we have this.

The U.S. Justice Department joined Texas’ attorney general Wednesday in asking a federal court to delay a hearing on the state’s voter ID law, the latest signal that the federal government might drop its opposition to the law now that Donald Trump is president.

In the joint filing, the Justice Department and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked to delay next Tuesday’s hearing until summer because the Texas Legislature is considering changes to the existing law, which a federal court has found to be discriminatory. Barack Obama’s Justice Department had joined the lawsuit contesting it.

[…]

In the filing, the Justice Department and Texas asked for the hearing to be pushed back until after June 18, the last day Gov. Greg Abbott has to sign or veto legislation.

“If new Texas state voter identification legislation is enacted into law, it will significantly affect the remainder of this litigation,” Texas and the Justice Department argue.

Just hours after Trump was sworn in as president, the Justice Department asked for a January hearing to be delayed to February, saying they needed more time to brief new leadership. Lawyers in the case say it’s still too early to know for sure if Trump’s Justice Department change positions in the case.

In August, Ramos denied a request from Texas to delay hearings in the case until after the legislative session wraps up in June.

“The question to be determined at the hearing is whether there was intent to discriminate during the legislative session in 2011,” said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who is part of a legal team representing Democrats and minority rights groups challenging the law. “Whatever happens with this bill doesn’t address that question.”

See here and here for the background. I will just point out that the GOP could have passed SB5 back in 2011 and saved themselves a lot of trouble. It would still be a bad idea and a non-solution in search of a non-existent problem, but it would have been harder to beat in court. But here we are, and in this environment that counts for progress. A statement from Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is beneath the fold, and the Star-Telegram has more.

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