CORPUS CHRISTI — A new law softening Texas’ strict voter identification requirements doesn’t absolve the lawmakers from intentionally discriminating against minority voters in 2011 — nor would it properly accommodate those voters going forward, the state’s opponents in a long-running lawsuit argued Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, what the court is in the midst of is a larceny in progress,” Chad Dunn, a lawyer representing some of the challengers, told U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, accusing the Texas Legislature of trying to skirt responsibility for its sins of discrimination — reminiscent of state actions in the 1950s and 1960s. “It is a litigation strategy masquerading as a legislative function.” 

Dunn was speaking about Senate Bill 5, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week. It loosens a 2011 voter ID law — known as the nation’s most stringent — that courts have ruled purposefully burdened Latino and black voters.

Dunn and other plaintiffs' attorneys argued Ramos should void all provisions of the 2011 law, known as Senate Bill 14. In doing so, she would effectively invalidate the new law and return Texas to life before photo ID requirements.  

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Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday portrayed SB 5 as a good-faith effort to fix problems multiple federal judges identified in the 2011 law, and called on Ramos to consider the new law a valid remedy — without levying penalties on the state. 

“Mr. Dunn has told you a story this morning,” argued Matthew Frederick, the state's deputy solicitor general. “He has painted a caricature of this state, a caricature of the Legislature and a caricature of SB 5.”

Ramos, who made no rulings Wednesday, asked parties to file briefs on their positions by June 12.

Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Senate Bill 14 disproportionately targeted minority voters who were less likely to have one of seven forms of identifications it required they show at the polls. Ramos upped the ante in April, ruling the state discriminated on purpose. Ramos was instructed to consider a remedy for the violations, and her ruling raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws — a process called preclearance. 

Seeking to avoid that fate, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature enacted SB 5, frantically pushing it to the finish line in the final days of the legislative session. In doing so, state leaders made clear that it was aimed at pleasing the courts more than anything.

“I know a court has ruled otherwise, but as someone who was here in 2011, I don’t believe there’s any evidence that we intended to discriminate,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, the bill’s House sponsor, said last month in a chamber debate.

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Ramos temporarily softened the ID rules for the 2016 elections, and the new law somewhat follows its lead.  It would allow people without photo ID to vote if they presented alternate forms of ID and signed affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

Those voters could present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. Those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a state felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail.

Under the bill, Texans who own a qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.  

“The law as enacted tracks the interim remedy ordered by this Court and agreed to by plaintiffs and defendants,” Paxton argued in a brief this week.

On Wednesday, Frederick asked Ramos to consider whether SB 5 would fully fix the old law’s effects, and to do so before Aug. 10 — to accommodate deadlines at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

The state’s legal foes suggested the law wouldn’t a fully address the discrimination, but they argued that question was moot. Ramos should wipe clean all elements of SB 14, they argued, returning Texas to a time when voter registration cards and other non-photo ID sufficed.

“We think, at best, it’s duct tape on a discriminatory law,” Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, told reporters. “It’s an amendment to a bill that’s gone.” 

Under the plaintiffs' scenario, Ramos would later consider whether she should place Texas under federal electoral supervision. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18. Abbott said that after legislators address a bill to keep some state agencies from shuttering, he'll add another 19 items to the agenda. [Full story]

  • A federal judge has ruled — for the second time — that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters in passing a strict voter identification law in 2011.   [Full story]

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