The Sessions Effect: Trump DOJ Reverses Course In Major Texas Voter ID Case

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. smile as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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For the last six years, the Justice Department has sided with the citizens and civil rights groups fighting Texas’ voter ID law, which a federal judge at one point found to be intentionally discriminatory against black and Latino voters. But its position changed Monday when the department decided to drop its claim that Republican state lawmakers enacted the law to make it harder for minorities to vote.

“This signals to voters that they will not be protected under this administration,” said Danielle Lang, the deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, which is challenging Texas’ law in court.

The reversal, on the eve of a key hearing in the case, is a clear sign of the DOJ’s direction under Attorney General Jeff Sessions—a longtime advocate of voter ID laws and other voting restrictions. The department signaled its intentions last week when it joined with the state of Texas to ask the court to hold off on judging the constitutionality of the law until Republican lawmakers can modify it. The court rejected this request.

Lang told TPM that the DOJ reached out Monday morning to her and the other voting rights groups fighting the law to notify them of their new position.

On Tuesday, DOJ lawyers will appear before U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos and inform her that the federal government is dismissing its claim that the voter ID law was crafted with a discriminatory intent.

“There have been six years of litigation and no change in the facts,” Lang told TPM. “We have already had a nine-day trial and presented thousands of pages of documents demonstrating that the picking and choosing of what IDs count was entirely discriminatory and would fall more harshly on minority voters. So for the DOJ to come in and drop those claims just because of a change of administration is outrageous.”

In a filing late Monday afternoon (see below) the Department of Justice informed the court that they will drop their claim that the law has a discriminatory purpose, citing “the comity necessary in our system of federalism.” The department asked the court to dismiss their claim of discriminatory purpose without prejudice.

The groups suing Texas over the law, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Campaign Legal Center, will continue to fight to prove discriminatory purpose despite the loss of the DOJ’s support.

“We will move forward,” Lang said. “None of the record evidence has changed. We fully expect to prevail.”

Texas enacted the strict voter ID law in 2011, and it has been tied up in court battles ever since. Civil rights groups say the policy, which accepts gun licenses but not student IDs at the polls, discriminates against low-income and minority voters who are far less likely to possess an ID and face difficulties obtaining one. In some parts of the state, the groups argued in court, people would have to drive more than 100 miles to reach the nearest office where they could obtain an ID—a burden many cannot overcome.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the state from fully enforcing the law for the 2016 presidential election—a move that preserved the voting rights of more than 16,000 Texans, according to state records. Last summer, the appeals court agreed with the challengers, which then included the Justice Department, that the law had the effect of discriminating against minority voters, but it sent the question of whether the law was intentionally discriminatory back to the district court for further review after the election. The district court will hear arguments on that question in the hearing scheduled for Tuesday, but the Justice Department will no longer be on the side of voting rights advocates.

This post has been updated with information from the DOJ’s court filing.

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