Jeff Sessions drops DOJ lawsuit against discriminatory Texas voter ID case, reverses 6 years of litigation

The Department of Justice plans to abandon its claim that Texas GOP lawmakers targeted voters of color

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 27, 2017 9:47PM (EST)

 (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
(AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Days after Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott paid a personal visit to Vice President Mike Pence's Washington, D.C. home, the Department of Justice announced that it would switch sides on a voting rights legal battle. The lawsuit claims that Republican lawmakers intentionally sought to discriminate against voters of color in the Lone Star state.

The DOJ plans to withdraw from a six year long legal battle against Texas' voter-ID law, one of the strictest in the nation.  This is the first major voting rights case the DOJ faced under Sessions, who called the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance provision “good news, I think, for the South.”

Danielle Lang, the Campaign Legal Center's deputy director of voting rights, said that the Justice Department informed her group and the other groups suing Texas — including the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — of the government's change in position Monday morning.

“We can’t make heads or tails of any factual reason for the change. There has been no new evidence that’s come to light,” Lang told the AP.

The DOJ's move comes a day before the law's opponents were set to argue in federal court.

The Obama White House joined the Campaign Legal Center's lawsuit against the 2011 Texas law in 2013. The law requires voters to present a limited array of government-issued photo IDs when voting in person -- which include a Texas driver's license, a Texas handgun license or a military identification card, but not federal or state government identification card or student ID.

The state had originally been prevented from passing the law in 2011 under Republican Gov. Rick Perry, but was able to quickly enact it in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the VRA, which required the state to submit any changes to its election laws to the federal government or in federal court.

Texas' law is said to be "the nation's strictest voter photo ID law that leaves more than half a million eligible voters who do not have the requisite types of ID from fully participating in the democratic process." The DOJ under the Obama administration viewed the rule as draconian to the point that it unconstitutionally violated safeguards of the Voting Rights Act. A federal judge in 2014 called the law an “unconstitutional poll tax."

A few months before the 2016 elections, a conservative panel of judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law, citing its effect of discriminating against voters of color. The conservative court, however, sent the case back to a district court to examine whether the law was also passed with a discriminatory intent -- which is the point of Tuesday's planned proceedings. Sessions' DOJ will drop the federal government's longstanding argument that Texas legislators acted with discriminatory intent.

Now the nonprofits are left to fend for themselves in court, as Sessions, a vocal proponent of voter ID laws, and his DOJ support Texas officials. The acting head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division has already recused himself from the case because he offered Texas lawmakers advice on writing the law. DOJ will ask U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to dismiss their claim that Texas acted with discriminatory intent during a hearing Tuesday. (One part of the case is before a district court, the other is currently pending before the Supreme Court.)

“We will move forward,” Lang said of the suit in an interview with TPM. “None of the record evidence has changed. We fully expect to prevail.”

The Republican-controlled state government has lobbied hard to reinstate the controversial voting requirements since it was struck down last summer, with Texas Attorney General filing legal motions asking for the law's reinstatement that's been concurred by Sessions prior to the DOJ's complete shift today.

On his first day in office, hours after his inauguration, President Donald Trump made clear that he planned to switch sides on the voter-ID case when he asked the court for a 30-day delay in the blockbuster Texas case.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Gop Jeff Sessions Texas Texas Voter Id Law The Voting Rights Act Voter Id