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Texas Voter ID Law Goes Before 5th Circuit Panel

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 28, 2015 4:05 PM

Today was a big day for oral arguments, but not just in D.C. While the Supreme Court grappled with gay marriage and lethal injection, the Fifth Circuit heard panel arguments over Texas's voter ID law.

Texas's law requires voters to produce specific types of identification in order to cast a ballot. A district court judge found that the law not only had discriminatory effects, but that it was also passed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose. That conclusion could be in jeopardy today, as at least one Fifth Circuit judge, Catharina Haynes, found the district court's conclusion about the law's intent to be "very troubling" and "rank speculation."

We Know Where One Judge Stands, At Least

When judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, ruled against the law last October, she didn't hold back. According to her opinion, Texas's law created an unconstitutional burden on voting, one which would place unnecessary obstacles primarily in front of African American and Hispanic voters. Not only that, she found that discrimination was the actual intent of the law, tying it to a long history of voter disenfranchisement in the Lone Star state.

That didn't seem to sit well with circuit judge Haynes, the only Republican-appointed judge on the panel. Haynes took umbrage with the "assumption" (pay no attention to that district court record behind the curtain) that the legislation was born out of discriminatory intent. She also objected to an argument made by Chad Dunn, of the Department of Justice. The district court's ruling, Dunn argued, was a sign that it was time to "clean out the stalls." The folksy phrasing didn't sit well with Dunn, who noted that many of the people who passed the law were still "in the stalls," or at least the Texas legislature.

A New Poll Tax?

Parties challenging the voter ID law described it as a poll tax operating by another name. The law allows only a small universe of IDs to be used in voting -- it allows handgun licenses, for example, but not student IDs -- and those aren't free. While the state can provide a voter identification card, opponents noted that those require a birth certificate, which the state will only provide for a fee.

That burden effected more than 600,000 Texans, largely black and Latino citizens, who did not have birth certificates and could not vote in person, opponents of the law argued. Texas argued that those voters could still vote by mail, though that too is heavily restricted.

There is no indication as to when the court will issue an opinion, but observers doubt if it will arrive before the state's next regular elections in May.

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