SCOTUS gives 5th Circuit Court of Appeals a deadline to decide Texas voter ID case

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to stop Texas from enforcing its strict photo ID requirement for voters in the state in an upcoming run-off election, but left open the possibility that it might change its mind later. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog reports, Texas voter ID law left in effect — for now:

SupremeCourtThe order in essence gave a federal appeals court until July 20 to decide a case about that law’s validity under the federal Voting Rights Act.  After that date, the Court might step in, it said.

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The new order does these things: first, it denied the request to block enforcement immediately; second, it noted that it was aware of the pressure of time before the November election; third, it told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that if it has not acted in any way on the pending en banc review of the controversy “on or before July 20,” any “aggrieved party” disappointed by that inaction could ask the Justices for temporary legal protection; and, fourth, it also said that any “aggrieved party” could ask the Court to step in before the July date if there were a change in circumstances that would bear upon the enforcement issue.

The Court indicated to the Fifth Circuit that the July 20 date was something of a deadline for it either to rule on the merits of the dispute, or else wipe out or change that court’s existing order which permits enforcement while the en banc review proceeds.  At this stage, the only issue before the en banc Fifth Circuit is whether the photo ID law violates one part of federal voting rights law.

A three-judge Fifth Circuit panel had found a violation of the federal law’s Section 2, which makes illegal voting practices that have a discriminatory effect on minority voters.   That [same] panel, however, had overturned a federal trial judge’s ruling that the photo ID law also was unconstitutional and that it was an invalid poll tax.

The Supreme Court’s detailed order Friday was issued without any indication that any Justice had dissented.  When the Court last refused to delay the Texas ID requirement, in October 2014, the Justices were split six to three.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent an entire night and several hours of the following morning writing a strong dissenting opinion at that time.

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It would have taken the votes of five of the current eight Justices to have blocked enforcement of the state law.  If the Court had split four to four, then, the request for a delay in enforcement would have failed.

There was no indication in the order why the Court chose the July 20 date as a deadline for the Fifth Circuit to act.  The en banc hearing before the Fifth Circuit is set for May 24 (coincidentally, the same day as the state run-off election).   At earlier stages of the case, state officials in Texas had said that the machinery of preparing for the November 8 general election must begin to operate as early as June.   Among the preparations will be training of thousands of poll workers.

The July 20 date gives the Fifth Circuit just short of two months to act.  When the challenging voters and office-holders asked the Fifth Circuit to block enforcement, it simply replied that it would consider that request when it rules on the merits of the dispute.  That schedule was part of the complaint that the challengers made to the Supreme Court about the pace of the Fifth Circuit.

The July 20th deadline falls during the RNC National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 18-21, 2016. This might add some more intrigue to the “mistake by the lake” GOP convention.

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