NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether a strict Texas voter ID law should be struck down, upheld, or, perhaps, adjusted is now up to 15 federal appeals court judges.
The full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday about the law, which requires voters to present one of seven specific forms of photo ID to cast a ballot.
The state and other supporters of the law say it prevents fraud. Opponents, including the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups, say in-person voter fraud is extremely rare and that Texas' law discriminates by requiring forms of ID that are more difficult to obtain for low-income, African-American and Latino voters.
It was unclear when the full court would rule. Last year, a three-judge panel of the court upheld a district judge's finding that the law was illegally discriminatory in its effect. But a majority of the full court decided to re-hear the case.
The three-judge panel's ruling wasn't a full victory for the law's opponents. It rejected parts of the district judge's ruling, finding, for instance, that the law didn't amount to an illegal "poll tax." And the panel told the lower court to re-examine the question of whether the bill was passed to purposely discriminate against minority and low-income voters.
Such questions were back on the table at Tuesday's hearing, with Janai Nelson, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, saying the law was passed during a legislative session rife with race-tinged debate on illegal immigration and that it resulted in a bill that requires IDs that black and Latino voters are less likely to have.
Texas' solicitor general, Scott Keller, said there is no proof of any discriminatory intent in the law's passage, or that it has affected voter registration or participation. Chief Judge Carl Stewart said there is evidence that some individual voters' rights were abridged, but Keller said that the evidence was insufficient to warrant overturning the law.
A recurring issue in the hearing was whether the law could be saved if judges find that there was no discriminatory intent behind the law, but that it nevertheless had some discriminatory effect. Although several states' voter ID laws have been upheld by the courts — arguments Tuesday often centered on Indiana's — opponents of the Texas law, and some of the judges, noted that the other states allow use of a wider variety of IDs, including college student IDs and federal and state employee cards, among others.
"Why didn't the Legislature just do that in the first place?" Judge Catharina Haynes asked at one point during discussions on whether the law should more closely follow laws upheld in other states.
Lawyers for Texas argued in briefs that the state makes free IDs easy to obtain, that any inconveniences or costs involved in getting one do not substantially infringe upon the right to vote, and that the Justice Department and other plaintiffs have failed to prove that the law has resulted in denying anyone the right to vote.
Opponents countered that trial testimony indicated various bureaucratic and economic burdens associated with the law — for example, the difficulty in finding and purchasing a proper birth certificate to obtain an ID. A brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union cites testimony in other voter ID states indicating numerous difficulties faced by people, including burdensome travel and expenses to get required documentation to obtain IDs.
Despite being struck down by a federal district judge in 2014, the law has been enforced in recent elections. The initial decision came so close to Election Day that a 5th Circuit panel allowed it to be enforced that year to avoid voter confusion.
Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal to stop Texas from enforcing the law pending the current appeal. But the court said it could revisit the issue as the November election approaches.
The three judges who ruled on the law last year were chief Judge Carl E. Stewart, nominated by President Bill Clinton; Haynes, nominated by President George W. Bush; and U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown, an appointee of President Barack Obama who was on temporary assignment to the appeals court.
The full 15-member court includes 10 judges nominated by Republican presidents and five nominated by Democrats.