Capital Highlights: 08-13-15

BY ED STERLING, TEXAS PRESS ASSOCIATION

Fifth Circuit delivers opinion concerning voter ID law
AUSTIN — Even if the Texas Legislature did not intentionally pass a voter identification law that illegally discriminates against voters who are black, Hispanic or poor, the practical effect of the law is discriminatory and in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

A 49-page opinion of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was released on Aug. 5. The panel ordered that much of the case be remanded to a federal district court in Texas for further consideration.

When the Legislature passed Senate Bill 14 in May 2011, plaintiffs led by then-state Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth filed suit, naming then-Gov. Rick Perry, the secretary of state and the chief of the Texas Department of Public Safety as defendants. Plaintiffs argued that the intent of the law was to suppress the minority vote and the law’s requirement that a voter, to cast a ballot in person, must first present one of several forms of photo identification in addition to their voter registration certificate, amounts to an illegal poll tax. The U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, agreed and top state officials, acting on behalf of the state, appealed.

In its multi-part ruling, the Fifth Circuit panel:
— Vacated plaintiffs’ claim that the law is discriminatory in purpose and remanded that issue to the district court for further consideration. 
— Affirmed the district court’s finding that the law does have a discriminatory effect and thus is in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, but also remanded that issue to the district court “for consideration of the proper remedy.”
— Vacated the district court’s holding that SB 14 is a poll tax and rendered judgment in the State’s favor. 
— Dismissed plaintiffs’ claims that SB 14 violates the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection).
Gov. Greg Abbott on Aug. 5 said: “In light of ongoing voter fraud, it is imperative that Texas has a voter ID law that prevents cheating at the ballot box. Texas will continue to fight for its voter ID requirement to ensure the integrity of elections in the Lone Star State.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said: “Today’s ruling was a victory on the fundamental question of Texas’ right to protect the integrity of our elections and the state’s common sense Voter ID law remains in effect.”

The Texas Democratic Party issued a statement saying, “On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas’ discriminatory voter ID law  â€” passed by Republican lawmakers and signed by Governor Rick Perry — violates Section 2 of Voting Rights Act.” 
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said: “Texas Democrats believe that our nation and democracy is stronger when everyone is invited to participate in our electoral process. … We remain confident that the courts will find justice for Texas voters and ultimately strike down this racist and discriminatory law.”

TEA releases 2015 ratings
Texas Education Agency on Aug. 7 released the 2015 state accountability ratings for more than 1,200 school districts and charters, as well as the more than 8,600 campuses statewide and said the ratings reveal that 94 percent of school districts and charters across Texas have achieved the rating of Met Standard.

Districts, campuses and charters receive one of three ratings: Met Standard, Met Alternative Standard or Improvement Required. Districts, charters and campuses can appeal the rating and final ratings based on the outcomes of appeals will be released in late October or early November, said Education Commissioner Michael Williams.

Abbott reacts to president
President Obama on Aug. 3 announced the finalization of “America’s Clean Power Plan” which he called “the biggest step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change” and said, “This plan sets the first-ever carbon pollution standards for power plants while providing states and utilities with the flexibility they need to meet those standards.”
Gov. Abbott on Aug. 3 reacted to the announcement, calling it “an environmental rule imposing steep cuts on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.”

“Not only will this rule result in higher energy prices for consumers, it will cost thousands of jobs,” Abbott said. “As we have in the past, Texas will lead the fight against an overreaching federal government that seems hell-bent on threatening the free-market principles this country was founded on.”