Attorney General Rides a Losing Streak

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

Greg Abbott, the state’s ambitious and litigious attorney general, is on a losing streak.

Federal courts in Washington ruled against him in two crucial voting rights cases last week, first finding that the redistricting maps drawn by the Republican Legislature didn’t protect minority voters as the law requires, and then ruling the state’s tough new photo voter ID law unfairly burdens minority voters.

Neither ruling appears to be a threat to the elections now under way. In the case of redistricting, the state’s maps were replaced this year with interim maps prepared by another set of federal judges. In the case of voter ID, there doesn’t appear to be enough time for the courts to turn around an appeal and order the new standards before November.

Abbott is appealing both rulings, and it wouldn’t be fair to say either fight is over.

It would be fair to say he is getting the stuffing knocked out of him, though, and on issues that matter to Republican voters.

Abbott, who has told supporters he would like to be the next governor, is fighting on several legal fronts (for a supporter of tort reform, he does file a lot of lawsuits). He beat the Environmental Protection Agency on rules designed to regulate pollution crossing state lines. And he won a skirmish over the state’s decision to cut financing for Planned Parenthood. But he lost the two voting rights cases, a separate EPA case over greenhouse gases and the big one — the lawsuit also pursued by other attorneys general to upend the federal health care law.

Texas Democrats, who have been scrounging for good political news this year, are living it up, hooting at the Republicans in management and praising judges for protecting minority voters.

This could turn out OK for Abbott in the end. Prominent Republicans seem to like the fights Abbott has been picking, and they’re publicly sticking with him. “Sue, baby, sue. I want to say let’s just keep suing those guys,” Comptroller Susan Combs told the Texas delegates at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., last week. Gov. Rick Perry, in a press release after Thursday’s voter ID decision, urged Abbott “to fight for the same right that other states already have to protect their elections.”

Some of the legal losses could be politically productive even if they don’t produce any legal satisfaction for Abbott. Win some, lose some — it’s the fight that counts.

But last week was brutal. The redistricting decision falls solely on the state lawyers. They advised lawmakers who were drawing the maps. Texas is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, meaning federal permission is required to change voting laws, including its political maps. The elves in Abbott’s workshop decided more than a year ago to ask the federal courts for that preclearance instead of going the faster and more common route though the United States Department of Justice. That’s a bunch of Democrats, after all, and the state lawyers decided they would have better luck with the judges.

The redistricting opinion said the state didn’t prove that the new maps protected minority voters’ rights or that the maps were enacted without discriminatory purpose. It took forever to get the news, too. The court’s lassitude affected everyone who ran and everyone who voted. The state filed for preclearance last summer, but the federal judges didn’t hold hearings until November, and then took nine months to deliver Friday’s baby. The delays cascaded into other proceedings, pushing the primary elections from March to May and the runoffs from May to July.

The voter ID ruling was more pointed. The judges said the state required photo IDs for voters while making them difficult to obtain for poor people — many of whom are minorities. They pointed out that state lawmakers had voted down several amendments that would have made the decision on how to rule much closer than it was.

A big issue remains, and a win could wash the egg off of Abbott’s face. He is challenging the part of the Voting Rights Act that requires the state to get federal approval for changes in its maps and in how it conducts elections.

Abbott joked on Twitter after the rulings that he’s going to need a permanent parking place at the United States Supreme Court.

He needs more than that. He needs some wins.

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