'Working to Turn the Clock Back,' Sessions' DOJ Reverses Stance on Discriminatory Voting Law

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by Lauren McCauley, staff writer


'Working to Turn the Clock Back,' Sessions' DOJ Reverses Stance on Discriminatory Voting Law

Voting Rights organizations arguing on behalf of Texas voters in the case Veasey v. Abbott have vowed to fight on 'without the DOJ'

Underscoring warnings that newly anointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not work to protect voting rights, news broke on Monday that the Trump administration is reversing its stance on whether Texas' photo identification law was enacted with discriminatory intent.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday after the trial was postponed following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Under former President Barack Obama, the DOJ was slated to argue that the state had intentionally discriminated against Latino and African American voters when it passed the 2011 law, SB 14, and had in November submitted (pdf) hundreds of documents supporting that claim.

Gerry Hebert, director of Voting Rights and Redistricting with the Campaign Legal Center, broke news of the DOJ's reversal on Twitter before other voting rights organizations and observers confirmed the reports.

    BREAKING NEWS! Sessions' DOJ is abandoning its 6-year old claims that TX Photo ID law was enacted w/discriminatory intent. We will fight on!

    — Gerry Hebert (@GerryHebert) February 27, 2017

    BREAKING: DOJ switching positions under Sessions, will no longer argue TX #VoterID passed to intentionally discriminate. Hearing tomorrow.

    — Brennan Center (@BrennanCenter) February 27, 2017

    As recently as 12/2016, @TheJusticeDept agreed TX voter ID law intentionally discriminated. Under AG Sessions, they're now backtracking. pic.twitter.com/9751fhSka8

    — Lawyers' Committee (@LawyersComm) February 27, 2017

    AG Sessions working to turn the clock back. #DOJ abandoning its position that #Texas #VoterID law was adopted with discriminatory purpose.

    — Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) February 27, 2017

Voting Rights organizations—including the Campaign Legal Center, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Brennan Center for Justice, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund—that are arguing on behalf of Texas voters in the case Veasey v. Abbott have vowed to fight on "without the DOJ."

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Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights with the Campaign Legal Center, said that the DOJ "informed plaintiffs in the case that it will be filing documents to formally drop its opposition to the Texas law. She called the decision an 'extraordinary disappointment,'" the Associated Press reported.

"It's a complete 360," Lang said. "We can't make heads or tails of any factual reason for the change. There has been no new evidence that's come to light."

At the same time, the turn-around comes as no real surprise given the new AG's abysmal record on voting rights. Talking Points Memo reporter Alice Ollstein dubbed it the "Sessions Effect" while others pointed to his history of supporting voter suppression efforts.

    Jeff Sessions suppressed Black voters during his career in AL. Today, he affirmed his intention to do same as AG. We'll carry on w/o DOJ.

    — Lawyers' Committee (@LawyersComm) February 27, 2017

SB 14 is said to be "the nation's strictest voter photo ID law that leaves more than half a million eligible voters who do not have the requisite types of ID from fully participating in the democratic process."

Summarizing the extensive legal battle thus far, TPM's Ollstein reports:

    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 and 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.

On Tuesday, the district court will hear arguments on that particular question. Nation columnist Ari Berman posited that the DOJ argument will likely mimic the 5th Circuit Court position, which found that while the law has the "effect of discriminating against blacks [and] Latinos," as Berman put it, it was "not intentionally discriminatory."

As this is the first major voting rights case the DOJ faces under Sessions, observers note the case could have implications for other cases, such as in North Carolina, in which the federal government had sided against a state voting law.

However, since Sessions' confirmation, the DOJ has reversed course on several issues, including transgender rights and the use of private prisons.

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