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Did Texas Deliberately Pass a Racist Law? Under Trump, the Feds No Longer Care


  • Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr creative commons
Voting rights lawyers are set to argue in a Corpus Christi federal court on Tuesday that Texas lawmakers knew their voter ID law discriminated against Hispanics and African Americans, and yet passed it anyway. Were this week's court hearing scheduled, say, when Barack Obama was president, the feds would have come in with the assist.

But not so under President Donald Trump, who appointed as attorney general Jeff Sessions, a politician who prosecuted black activists for voter fraud, couldn't get a federal judgeship because of past racist comments, and openly opposed the Voting Rights Act.

And, to no one's surprise, on Monday lawyers with the Sessions-led Department of Justice dropped out of the Texas voter ID case still lingering in the courts — yet another example of the 180-degree shift in Texas' relationship with the feds under Trump.

In fact, Trump's DOJ tried to keep Tuesday's court hearing from happening at all. While the two were adversaries in the legal case leading up to this point, last week Texas and feds filed a joint, unsuccessful request to stall the hearing before U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos, arguing a law proposed in the Texas Legislature this session could render the current case moot.

Hardly. Various courts — including the famously conservative Fifth Circuit appeals court — have ruled no less than four times that the voter ID law Texas passed in 2011 carried an "impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African Americans" and blocked it from going into effect last year. Still at issue in the litigation, however, is whether Texas lawmakers knew they were passing a racist law.

On that point (lawmakers' so-called "legislative intent"), Judge Ramos was blunt in her October 2014 ruling following a trial over the law, known as SB 14:
"This Court concludes that the evidence in the record demonstrates that proponents of SB 14 within the 82nd Texas Legislature were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law's detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate."
Because the Fifth Circuit judges couldn't agree on the whole "racially motivated" part once the case hit their court, the judges cobbled together a patchwork ruling that effectively kicked the case back to Ramos.

How the courts answer that question — were Texas lawmakers deliberately or accidentally racist? — could have serious consequences. Prior to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act, states with a "history of discrimination" (like Texas and basically the entire south) were required to obtain federal approval before fiddling with their states' voting or elections laws. If the voting rights plaintiffs can uphold Judge Ramos' ruling — that Texas lawmakers intentionally passed a discriminatory bill — Texas would again be subject to federal pre-clearance for voting or elections changes in the future.

“None of the facts have changed, just the administration,” Danielle Lang, a lawyer with one of several groups challenging the voter ID law, told the Texas Tribune. “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.”

The DOJ stepping away from the issue isn't surprising, and it doesn't necessarily make the case harder for the voting rights lawyers headed into court on Tuesday. But clearly we shouldn't expect the feds to help anymore when it comes to little things like ensuring voting laws aren't deliberately skewed to disproportionately harm black and brown people.

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