A divided Supreme Court early Saturday let a Texas voter ID law remain in effect, the latest in a series of decisions on voting laws just in time for the beginning of early voting in the state this week.
Issued shortly before dawn, the high court’s decision after a flurry of last-minute motions means that Texas voters must present one of several forms of photo identification at the polls. The law took effect last year.
“We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that Texas’ voter ID law should remain in effect for the upcoming election,” state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office said in a statement. Spokeswoman Lauren Bean added that the state “will continue to defend the voter ID law.”
The court’s majority did not issue a written explanation for the ruling, issued at about 5 a.m. EDT. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote emphatically on behalf of herself and two other dissenters.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg in dissent. The court’s order did not explicitly say how the other six justices voted, though at least five must have agreed with the decision.
The liberal group Alliance for Justice denounced the ruling as a “big setback for voting rights,” while prominent Democrat Donna Brazile declared that the high court’s actions are “so hurtful to democracy.”
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas, joined the outcry.
“The disappointing decision by the Supreme Court to side with Greg Abbott and keep a law other courts have said is intentionally discriminatory against African Americans and Hispanics is one more reason it’s so important all Texans exercise their right to vote starting Monday,” Davis said in a statement.
Abbott is the Republican nominee for governor.
One of the key players in the legal efforts to thwart the law is U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
The decision extends the conservative-dominated Supreme Court’s role in the 2014 elections. Justices had reversed trial judges or appellate courts to let restrictive voter eligibility laws take effect in Ohio and North Carolina.
In Wisconsin, the court blocked state officials from implementing new voter ID requirements. In each case, the laws may remain subject to scrutiny under continued litigation. The immediate question was whether the laws would be in place for the fast-approaching November election.
The high court’s role this campaign season reflects, in part, the maturing of litigation over voter eligibility laws adopted by myriad states the last several years. Critics pointedly note that a court controlled by five Republican appointees has empowered voter eligibility laws that critics say target minorities.
The court’s conservative majority, moreover, had an indirect hand in the state actions. The court’s 5-4 decision in 2013 to strike down a key plank of the Voting Rights Act effectively gave a green light to states seeking to regulate voting without first getting federal approval, called pre-clearance.
“These measures likely would not have survived federal pre-clearance,” Ginsburg said in the North Carolina case.
Beyond allegations of judicial partisanship, the Supreme Court’s voter eligibility decisions reflect justices’ stated desire to avoid last-minute confusion over election rules.
The Texas law, dubbed SB14 and passed in 2011, requires voters to submit one of a limited number of documents, including a driver’s license, a military ID or a passport.
Previously, Texans had to provide only a voter registration card or another form of identity proof, like a utility bill.
The legal maneuvering over the law kicked into high gear Oct. 11, when U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos blocked the law. The Corpus Christi-based trial judge released a 147-page opinion in which she concluded that the Texas law was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Ramos, appointed in 2011 by President Barack Obama, likened the law to a “poll tax” that would disproportionately hinder minorities from voting.
In an opinion written by Judge Edith Brown Clement, a George W. Bush appointee, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Ramos and reinstated the Texas law by issuing a stay. Clement noted that the Supreme Court “has repeatedly instructed courts to carefully consider the importance of preserving the status quo on the eve of an election.”
The decision prompted opponents, including the Obama administration, to file three emergency applications asking the Supreme Court to remove the appellate court’s stay.
“Without this court’s intervention, voters across Texas will be irreparably harmed,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wrote, citing the “potential disenfranchisement of over 600,000 Texas voters.”
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.