ICYMI: 5th Circuit Upholds Amended Texas Voter ID Law

Last Friday, the Fifth Circuit upheld Texas' voter ID law, which it had amended in 2017 in response to an earlier en banc Fifth Circuit decision.  Judge Edith Jones wrote for the three-judge panel in Veasey v. Abbott, noting the irony that the plaintiffs were challenging, and the district court found invalid, the very interim remedy that both the plaintiffs and the district court had agreed to in 2016 (internal citations omitted): 

In the face of these obvious improvements over SB 14, Plaintiffs neither allude to nor adduce any proof that SB 5 has a discriminatory effect on indigent minority voters. To a large extent, SB 5 replicates the terms to which both parties agreed as an interim measure to cure SB 14’s Section 2 deficiencies in advance of the national 2016 election. Although the interim remedy was without prejudice to any party’s asserting its legal rights at a later date, one must wonder why the features the Plaintiffs agreed to only a year ago yielded an insufficient remedy when enacted into law. No explanation is forthcoming in their briefs. . . . 

That Plaintiffs’ factual critique boils down to speculation demonstrates the prematurity of the court’s decision to invalidate SB 5 in 2017, well before the law took effect in 2018. Nothing we conclude today disposes of any potential challenges to SB 5 in the future. Plaintiffs may file a new lawsuit, and bear the burden of proof, if the promise of the law to remedy disparate impact on indigent minority voters is not fulfilled. They did not challenge SB 14, for instance, for several years after its effective date. As a remedy for the deficiencies found by this court in Veasey II, however, there is no evidentiary or legal basis for rejecting SB 5, and the district court was bound not to take the drastic step of enjoining it. Further, because SB 5 constitutes an effective remedy for the only deficiencies testified to in SB 14, and it essentially mirrors an agreed interim order for the same purpose, the State has acted promptly following this court’s mandate, and there is no equitable basis for subjecting Texas to ongoing federal election scrutiny under Section 3(c) [of the Voting Rights Act].

Jason Snead and Hans von Spakovsky of The Heritage Foundation point out that the decision, while important for election integrity reasons, also has major implications for the rule of law:

It was on this flimsy legal basis that [District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales] Ramos supported her decision to jettison the entire Texas voter-ID law. This judgment was made despite the fact that “all of the evidence supports that SB 5 was designed to remedy every defect” in the earlier law and “to supply indigent voter protections” recommended by the Fifth Circuit. . . . 

It’d hard to disagree with Judge Jones’s reasoning here. Texas made, by all rights, a good-faith attempt to rectify problems with its election laws while preserving an essential, commonsense tool for fighting fraudulent votes. The solution it settled on was largely based on Ramos’s own 2016 remedy, and it offers a broader set of alternatives “to producing compliant photo voter ID” than the Indiana statute the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 2008. Its “reasonable impediment” exemption is also virtually identical to South Carolina’s voter-ID law. South Carolina’s law was upheld by a three-judge federal court in the District of Columbia in 2012 and has caused no problems. 

Judge Ramos may have a personal bias against voter-ID laws, but as a federal judge she is not entitled to substitute her own policy preferences for those of elected lawmakers. As Judge Jones reminded us, “Courts must defer to [the government’s proposed remedy] unless the newly enacted plan is itself unconstitutional or violates federal law.” 

Neither condition applies here, and Jones rightly reversed Ramos’s decision. Judge Jones has delivered a victory not only for the integrity of the ballot box, but for the rule of law itself.

While the plaintiffs will likely appeal to the en banc Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court, the efforts of Chairman Chuck Grassley and Leader Mitch McConnell to confirm President Trump's excellent judicial nominees have changed the composition of both of those courts since this case was last on appeal in 2016 and 2017.