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Developments in Voter ID, Ethics Commission Challenges

There were developments this week in a couple of court cases of significance in Texas politics: the challenge to the state's voter ID law and the challenge to an ethics investigation of Empower Texans

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The Corpus Christi federal judge hearing the challenge to Texas' voter ID law is weighing whether to compel the state to hand over documents that would show what lawmakers were talking about while passing the legislation in 2011.

The documents are being sought by the U.S. Department of Justice as well as the Hispanic and African-American plaintiffs groups challenging the law. They said the documents are needed to establish legislators' motivations in passing the law. That would be key to finding a violation under the Voting Rights Act. The state is fighting the motion, asserting that subpoenas are needed for the lawmakers. Also, the state says there are flaws in the search method proposed by the DOJ.

The next status conference in the court challenge is set for March 24.

Another current court challenge of note, Empower Texans' suit in federal court to shut down an investigation by the Texas Ethics Commission, also had a significant development. Lobbyist Steve Bresnen — who helped filed those complaints against the conservative advocacy group — asked to intervene in the legal action.

He said that he and other lobbyists had an interest in how the suit is decided and that the Ethics Commission wouldn't represent his interests in the matter. Empower Texans, as might be expected, filed paperwork to deny Bresnen's request. The Ethics Commission's formal hearing on the complaints filed against Empower Texans and its president, Michael Quinn Sullivan, is set for April 3.

These ethics complaints are just one half of the current battle being waged by Bresnen and Empower Texans. The Ethics Commission is also considering a rule that would accomplish what the Legislature tried to do last session but was denied via a gubernatorial veto.

Bresnen put up for consideration a proposed rule that would presume contributions made to a group spending money on campaigns are campaign contributions. The intent is to get 501(c)(4) groups, like Empower Texans on the right or the Texas Organizing Project on the left, to disclose big-dollar donors who are giving money to those groups for political activities. Empower Texans' attorney, Joe Nixon, criticized the language at a Feb. 13 meeting of the Ethics Commission. He said the action was intended to force a nonprofit group to disclose its donor lists "in order to shut it down."

Although this so-called dark money rule is a separate matter from the ethics complaints filed against Empower Texans, it has figured into the back-and-forth between the two sides. Empower Texans makes mention of the proposed rule in its filing. Bresnen brought up dark money as well in his motion to intervene.

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