By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
AANIC Supreme Court Correspondent
In an emergency action, the Texas NAACP, and other civil rights groups, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop Texas from enforcing Senate Bill 14. But, the conservative-led Court sided with the state, and upheld the strictest voter photo identification law in America, giving the civil rights community yet another defeat.
Senate Bill 14 requires a person to present one of a limited number of government-issued photo identification documents. There were challenges to S.B. 14 from the beginning. Lawsuits followed this legislation from its inception. Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), a possible presidential contender in 2016, signed Senate Bill 14 on May 27, 2011, a few months prior to announcing his first presidential bid.
Under S.B. 14, the only acceptable forms of identification are driver’s license, non-driver ID, and concealed handgun license, all of which can only be obtained through the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), or one may use a passport, citizenship certificate, or military identification card containing photo.
This ID must be presented at the polling place in order to vote.
Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), along with African- American and Latino voters, sued Perry. They argued S.B. 14 violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the first amendment, fourteenth amendment, and fifteenth amendment. Their first amendment claim is based on voting as an act of expression or free speech.
The Veasey plaintiffs proved over 400,000 poor people, African-Americans, Hispanics, and those with disabilities will be prevented from voting due to their inability to obtain the required photo identification. The plaintiffs stated DPS offices providing required identification have limited hours that conflict with most work schedules and are located in remote locations far from public transportation.
At trial, Veasey plaintiffs argued that the law was intentionally enacted to undermine the votes of poor and minority communities.
Federal Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos agreed. After a nine day trial, with witnesses testifying about the law’s many burdens, based on an extensive factual record, Ramos ruled that S.B. 14 violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose.
However, Texas won on appeal, which prompted civil rights groups to go to the Supreme Court hoping to convince the court to block S.B. 14. They failed.
In a 6-3 decision, the court ignored the lengthy record of evidence of intentional discrimination presented at trial.
Finding for Texas, the court chose to allow the strict voter photo identification law in place to take effect during mid-term Federal elections.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg disagreed. Her dissent relied heavily on the trial evidence against Texas that it was an increase in the Latino population that led to S.B. 14. “The Texas Legislature and Gov. Perry had an evident incentive to “gain partisan advantage by suppressing” the “votes of African-Americans and Latinos,” she said. Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Ginsberg’s dissent.
The Supreme Court has upheld photo ID laws in the past. It allowed Ohio to reduce early voting as well as restrictions on registration in North Carolina.
However, in Wisconsin, students can use ID cards from a four-year college and recognized Indian Tribes can use federal IDs. No state requires the limited types of identification found in Texas.
There, eligible voters must travel over three hours to reach a Department of Public Safety office, Ramos found.
Texas claims S.B. 14 is needed to address voter fraud. However, between “2002 and 2011 there were only two in-person voter fraud cases prosecuted to conviction in Texas,” Ginsberg wrote in her dissent.
“The District Court further found that Senate Bill 14 operates as an unconstitutional poll tax,” she wrote.
Poll taxes, or payments required to vote, are prohibited under the 24th Amendment.
Initially, S.B. 14 was found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act. But, last year, in the case of Shelby County, AL v. Eric Holder, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act provision, finding preclearance of voting laws used to protect minority voters, was unconstitutional.
That ruling allowed Texas, and other states, to freely change their voting laws.
Following the Shelby decision, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promised swift enforcement “using every legal tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise,” Holder said, in 2013.
His office fought to stop S.B. 14.
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has handed-down the civil rights community historic defeats in voting rights, affirmative action, criminal justice, and public education.
Next month, the court will hear a fair housing case involving racial discrimination.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY), covers the U.S. Supreme Court, United Nations, and major legal issues. She is the Supreme Court correspondent for AANIC (African-American News & Information Consortium) and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”