Even as a federal appeals court prepares to review the constitutionality of Texas’ controversial voter ID law, the law will remain in effect, the U.S. Supreme Court said in an order Friday.
However, noting the time-sensitive nature of the case as the November elections approach, the Supreme Court also hinted that if the full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn’t issued a definitive ruling by July 20, the justices may revisit the issue.
Senate Bill 14, the law in question — which requires that voters present one of seven types of government ID before they can cast a ballot — has been charting a convoluted path through the legal system since it was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011.
The state has argued that the law is meant to prevent voter fraud and is perfectly legal, while civil rights groups say it violates the federal Voting Rights Act and functions as a poll tax, barred under the U.S. Constitution.
In August 2015, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law did have a “discriminatory effect,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act, although it did not constitute a poll tax. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked the full 5th Circuit to rehear the case, saying that the groups challenging the law had not named any people “whose right to vote will be denied or even substantially burdened by maintaining the status quo.”
Although the U.S. Justice Department urged the full 5th Circuit not to take the case, the appeals court ultimately agreed to hear it again. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 24.
In the interim, civil rights groups filed a petition with Justice Clarence Thomas, who sits at the head of the 5th Circuit to review emergency appeals. One the groups, the Campaign Legal Center, asked the Supreme Court to strike down the questionable laws while their legality is determined, so that there is sufficient time to spread information about who can vote in the November general elections.
Texas officials asked the justices to let the law stand, arguing that Texas will ultimately win the case. If the law were struck down temporarily and then restored later, it would cause “irreparable injury,” they said.
On Friday, the Supreme Court sided with Texas officials — but seemed to push the 5th Circuit toward making a speedy ruling as the presidential election approaches.
“The Court recognizes the time constraints the parties confront in light of the scheduled elections in November,” the Supreme Court’s order said. “If, on or before July 20, 2016,” the 5th Circuit hasn’t taken any action, the nine justices might revisit the issue, it added.
In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was pleased by the justices' decision.
"We appreciate the Supreme Court allowing the law to remain in effect at this time and look forward to defending the merits of our case in front of the entire Fifth Circuit next month," Paxton said.