Department of Justice withdraws from part of voter ID lawsuit in Texas

PHOTO: A sign tells voters of voter ID requirements before participating in the primary election at Sherrod Elementary school in Arlington, Texas, March 1, 2016. LM Otero/AP Photo
A sign tells voters of voter ID requirements before participating in the primary election at Sherrod Elementary school in Arlington, Texas, March 1, 2016.

The Department of Justice has just dropped out of a portion of a voting rights lawsuit in Texas that could signal a shift in stance on the issue since Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general.

The case at the heart of this latest legal drama centers on voter identification laws that were put in place in Texas in 2011 that require voters to have one of seven forms of state-approved ID -- gun permits are an acceptable form of ID, but college IDs are not. The law was controversial because voting rights groups -- and the DOJ under the Obama administration -- argued that the law discriminated against minorities who may not have those types of ID.

Prior to today, the DOJ had been working with a number of voting rights advocacy groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, in bringing the suit against the state of Texas over the legality of the voter ID requirements.

Now, however, the DOJ has withdrawn from part of the lawsuit, according to a filing obtained by ABC News, and even though the suit will carry on because of the other advocacy groups that are part of the case, it is being seen as a possible shift in policy.

"I have no reason to believe that this will affect the outcome of this case, but it is a disturbing signal from the Department of Justice," said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center's democracy program.

Weiser elaborated on her comments, telling The Associated Press: "The more vigorously the Department of Justice pursues illegal discrimination when it happens, the more deterrent an effect it has. When they pull back from vigorous enforcement, it may have an unfortunate and pernicious effect of sending a green light to states that there's going to be less policing [of discriminatory laws]."

Weiser explained to ABC News that there are essentially two different parts of the lawsuit: The first contends that the voter ID law in Texas discriminates against minority voters (that is, the effect of the law), while the second part of the lawsuit asserts that the law's intention was to discriminate against minority voters (that is, the intent of the law).

The district court ruled in favor of the DOJ and the plaintiffs on both counts, but the suit then went up to a circuit court on appeal. At that point, Weiser said that the circuit court deemed that "yes, you win" on the first part of the suit, but the court ruled that there would be "a do-over" on the second part regarding the law's intent.

In today's filing, the DOJ withdrew from that remaining part of the suit that argues that the voter ID laws were intentionally discriminatory.

In the filing, the DOJ said it was dropping its claim that Texas' measure was crafted with the purpose of disenfranchising minority voters because state lawmakers are considering a proposal to revise the law. The Republican-backed bill would make permanent the court-ordered changes imposed for the November election, but its fate won't be known until closer to the end of Texas' legislative session in May.

"Thus, there is no basis for further judicial action at this juncture, when the State is 'acting to ameliorate the issues raised' in this case and has requested reasonable time to do so," the agency argued.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Abueg said the agency was preparing a brief detailing its rationale for the move.

The case will continue with the other plaintiffs continuing to pursue the lawsuit. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

"The Department of Justice, for a very long time, has been arguing that Texas intentionally discriminated, and has built a very strong case," Weiser said.

"There clearly has been a shift in the department's position and strategy in the new administration. Beforehand, it was vigorously prosecuting the intent claim, and now it is stepping back from enforcing that claim, so there's a real fear that this could signal a retrenchment in voting rights enforcement by the Department of Justice and it's certainly a retrenchment in this particular case," she added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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