A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Texas's controversial voter ID law, the most severe in the country, has a "discriminatory effect" against minority voters, in what civil rights campaigners say is an important step towards justice for African-American, Latino, and low-income people suppressed under the rule.
The three judge panel determined that the law, passed by the state in 2011, violates what's left of the Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. The ruling itself comes just one day before the 50th anniversary of the Act, which was the product of the mass organizing and protests of the civil rights and black freedom movements.
"We recognize the charged nature of accusations of racism, particularly against a legislative body, but we also recognize the sad truth that racism continues to exist in our modern American society despite years of laws designed to eradicate it," wrote the three-judge panel for the New Orleans court, which is known for being conservative.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision, however, fell short of issuing a broad injunction against the 2011 law, instead determining that it must be sent to a lower district court to find an appropriate remedy. It was not immediately clear whether the state will continue to enforce the rule in the meantime.
This is not the first time a judge has ruled against the law. In 2014, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzoles Ramos overturned the rule on the grounds that it has "an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans" and compared it to a poll tax. She noted that voter suppression under the law was vast, with over 600,000 registered voters in Texas lacking the required documentation.
However, Texas successfully appealed this ruling, and the law was in effect during the November 2014 election, thereby disenfranchising large numbers of voters. Wednesday's decision is a blow against the 2011 rule but falls short of the Ramos ruling.
Nonetheless, civil rights groups were buoyed by the development.
"We are greatly encouraged by today’s decision," declared Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and an attorney with PotterBledsoe, in a press statement. "This decision acknowledges the problems Texas African American and Latino voters have experienced as cited by their leaders since the law was first implemented, that it blatantly discriminates against minority voters."
"We call upon the Attorney General to stop these efforts and not seek a rehearing or an appeal to the United States Supreme Court," Bledsoe continued. "There is no need to prolong discriminatory practices that truly are hurting Texans of color."
"The Texas Legislature was determined to adopt the most restrictive photo identification law in the country, and it rejected repeated opportunities to reduce the law’s negative effects," declared Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project. "It should come as no surprise that the court found a violation of federal law."
Wednesday's decision has broad implications for other voter suppression laws across the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, "Since the 2010 election, 21 states have new laws in place making it harder to vote, and 15 states will have new rules in effect for the first time in a presidential election in 2016."