The country’s most conservative circuit court of appeals issued a ruling today that will make it easier for many Texans to vote in November. As written, SB 14, the voter ID law, has been struck down. Some parts of the law may be left intact, however, after the district court judge creates a remedy in time for the November election.
On balance, however, a very strong opinion for those who believe that citizens eligible to vote should be able to vote, period.
In a long, complex ruling, the court took the following three actions:
1) The district court found that the law, SB 14, was passed with a racially discriminatory purpose. The appeals court today reverses that decision, and remands it to the district court, instructing it to reconsider the evidence. This does not mean that there cannot be a finding racially discriminatory purpose, it just means that the district court needs to consider the evidence with guidance given in this opinion on how to do so, what standards to use, and so forth.
2) The district court found that SB 14, as passed, has a racially discriminatory effect. Today’s decision affirms the district court’s ruling and remands the matter to that court for it to craft a suitable remedy, i.e. fixing the bill so it does not have a racially discriminatory effect. It cautions that the remedy must fix the discriminatory impact while respecting the legislature’s desire to protect against in-person voter fraud.
3) Finally, the plaintiffs argued that SB 14 was, in effect, a poll tax, and as such, violated the 14th and 24th amendments. The district court agreed. The appeals court vacates that decision, rendering judgment for the state on that matter and not considering the constitutional issues it raises.
From page 86 of the opinion:
In sum, the district court’s immediate responsibility is to ensure the implementation of an interim remedy for SB 14’s discriminatory effect that disrupts voter identification rules for the 2016 election season as little as possible, yet eliminates the Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act]discriminatory effect violation. The district court will need to reexamine the discriminatory purpose claim in accordance with the proper legal standards we have described, bearing in mind the effect any interim legislative action taken with respect to SB 14 may have. The district court’s task in this respect may await the November 8, 2016 general election.
So, what does this mean? There’s definitely a racially discriminatory effect, and there might well be a discriminatory purpose, which the district court will decide. And, the law can’t stand as written and passed, something that needs to be fixed before anyone votes in this general election.
What about the poll tax and constitutional issues? Should we be worried about those not being resolved? No. Courts will always refuse to rule on a constitutional matter if possible—the judicial equivalent of not taking a gun to a knife fight. Given the Voting Rights Act violations, therefore, they opted not to consider the constitutional argument since they could resolve the central question of the case without doing so.
Will the State of Texas appeal to the Supreme Court?
While Greg Abbott is never one to back down from championing a lost cause (see also Ken Paxton, Greg Abbott’s support for), the fact remains that the Supreme Court has already given a strong indication that it would frown on any attempt to take action that would imperil voting rights during the November 8th election.
Will the governor call a special session?
While anything passed in a special session would likely be challenged immediately in court, and enjoined from taking effect, when it comes to political theater, you can’t rule anything out if Greg Abbott is the one making the decision. So far, however, neither Abbott nor his frenemy, Dan Patrick, have posted any defiant reactions to the decision on Facebook or Twitter.