A federal ruling that Texas' strict voter ID law discriminates against minority voters has kicked off a rapid-fire legal race over whether photo identification will be required on Election Day this November, according to legal experts.
"It gets very tricky now that we're so close to the election," said Joseph Fishkin, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
Late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi ruled that the law, known as Senate Bill 14, requiring Texas voters to present specific photo identification was essentially a poll tax used to suppress minority voter participation.
The law, passed in 2011 and enacted two years later when the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for its implementation, requires most voters to present acceptable photo identification, like a driver's license, concealed handgun license, U.S. passport or a military ID. A college identification card is not considered acceptable. Other states have similar laws, but Texas' is considered one of the toughest.
Supporters of the law say it prevents voter fraud. But Ramos, who was appointed by President Obama, wrote in a 147-page opinion: "The evidence establishes that discriminatory purpose was at least one of the motivating factors for the passage of SB 14."
Her decision comes as Texas voters face a Nov. 4 election to choose a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller, among other races. Early voting starts in less than two weeks.
Late Thursday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a terse statement.
“The Attorney General’s Office will take all legal action necessary to avoid voter confusion and ensure that the law is in effect for the upcoming election," he said.
Now begins the fast appellate work to keep the Republican-backed law in place, Fishkin said.
The first stop for Abbott — who has the unusual position of being not only the state's lawyer in this case but the Republican nominee in the gubernatorial race — is the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
There, Abbott is likely not only to file an appeal of Ramos' ruling but also to request a stay to prevent her decision from being applied to this election until the appeals court has a chance to consider it.
What's unclear is whether the New Orleans appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court will get involved in the dispute before the election.
The Supreme Court has "said they don't like to change the rules right before an election," Fishkin said.
Chad Dunn, one of the lawyers for the groups suing the state in the voter ID case, said on Friday he believes it's unlikely the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court will overturn Ramos' ruling.
"It's going to be striking if the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court, so close to the election, says, 'We're going to allow this law to be in effect, even though a trial court has heard all this evidence,'" said Dunn, who represents the League of United Latin American Citizens and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Dallas.
In her ruling, Ramos also indicated that she would issue an injunction preventing the photo ID requirement from being enforced during the upcoming election.
But Chris Gober, a political law attorney in Austin, said it's likely the 5th Circuit will lift Ramos' injunction once she files it, meaning voters would need to show the photo ID in November.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the 5th Circuit lifted the injunction due to the close proximity of the election," Gober said.
On Friday, Abbott filed a request to Ramos that she clarify when she will file the injunction.
Since 2011, there have been consistent legal challenges to Texas' voter ID law, as well as to new election maps drawn after the state was awarded more congressional seats because of its increased population. In both cases, groups suing the state argued that Texas was discriminating against minority voters. A three-judge panel in San Antonio has not yet issued a final ruling on the maps, but it issued preliminary findings that said they diluted minority voting power.
"There are now nine federal judges who have found that some election law change adopted in 2011 was discriminatory in its effect," Dunn said.
In 2012, a panel of federal judges in Washington struck down Texas' voter ID law because the state had not demonstrated that the law wouldn't harm minority voters.
Abbott also asked the Department of Justice for permission to enact the law. The Justice Department denied Texas permission, and Abbott appealed the decision.
But before that appeal was heard, the U.S. Supreme Court in an Alabama case, Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated the formula under which Texas and other states were forced to ask for permission to change their election procedures. Voter ID thus moved forward in Texas, becoming law in 2013.
Texas was not the only state to see a court reject a voter ID law this week. Also on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order blocking Wisconsin's voter ID law from implementation until an appeal could be prepared for the high court.
Additional reporting by John Reynolds.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.