It’s August, and most of the federal government is on vacation.
Members of Congress are on their annual August state or district “work period,” President Barack Obama is at Martha’s Vineyard, and the Supreme Court is off until early October.
But not all of the federal machinery is idle, especially in Texas.
In San Antonio, a three-judge federal court is hearing the latest arguments in a case challenging state legislative and congressional redistricting plans favorable to the GOP. Another court, in Corpus Christi, plans to hear a case Sept. 2 that questions the constitutionality of Texas’ voter identification law.
The latter case exemplifies the Republican effort in states with GOP governors and legislatures to limit turnout among Democratic-leaning minority groups. The verdict could significantly affect the political futures of Texas and other states where the Justice Department filed or joined similar suits.
Both Texas cases stem from the 2013 Supreme Court decision ruling unconstitutional the 1965 Voting Rights Act section that gives the department power to review in advance voting changes in states like Texas with a history of racial bias.
Now, it must file court challenges to block state actions or restore its pre-clearance authority. Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Law, called the cases “a rear-guard action to use the remaining levers they have.”
This week’s San Antonio hearing is part of the challenge to the Legislature’s state and federal redistricting plans, which the Justice Department and other critics contend discriminate against Texas’ rapidly growing Hispanic population. The court has temporarily superseded the plans with its own.
The critics make a good case; the congressional redistricting plan created four new predominantly white districts, though Texas’ population growth was 65 percent Hispanic.
Interestingly, Texas acknowledged bias — but said it was aimed at Democrats, not minorities. “It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates,” it said.
The Corpus Christi case challenges Texas’ unreasonably strict 2011 law requiring voters to show one of a limited number of ID cards: a driver’s license, a passport, a concealed gun permit, military ID, an official state identification card or an election ID card.
Allegedly designed to combat voter fraud, despite the lack of evidence that such fraud is a problem, the law could keep thousands of elderly and poor rural Democratic-leaning blacks and Hispanics from voting, state and federal statistics show.
The department has also challenged a North Carolina law with similarly strict voter ID requirements. That law also reduced pre-election voting days and eliminated a program encouraging high school students to register and vote.
Last week, a federal judge refused to block the North Carolina law pending a trial, declaring that challengers failed to show it would cause them “irreparable harm.” Its voter ID portions don’t take effect until 2016.
Hasen said the Texas and North Carolina cases “are the ones everyone is watching. If the Justice Department is unsuccessful, it’s going to be open season for other jurisdictions to pass voting laws.”
Pretrial rulings by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, indicate Texas could face a tough time. A decision throwing out the law before November’s elections could be a blow to its architect, GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott.
“But the appeals court could be a different story,” Hasen said, noting its Republican tilt. And unlike Ramos, the North Carolina judge is a George W. Bush appointee.
Ultimately, the issue is likely to reach the same Supreme Court that ignored increased state efforts to make voting harder when it narrowed the Voting Rights Act.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.