By Drew Singer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A three-judge federal panel deciding the fate of Texas' new voter identification law grilled the state's lawyer in closing arguments on Friday and suggested that the controversial legislation would disproportionately hurt racial minorities.
The law, passed by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature in 2011, requires voters show a voter registration card - which does not have a photo - or an acceptable alternative, such as a driver's license or a utility bill.
Texas says the new measure will prevent voter fraud.
The Democratic administration of President Barack Obama blocked the law in March 2012, saying it discriminated against African-Americans and Hispanics.
As lawyers for the two sides made their final arguments after a week-long trial in U.S. District Court in Washington, the judges focused far more of their skeptical questions on Texas lawyer John Hughes than on the U.S. government lawyer.
"The burden falls disproportionately on minorities because minorities are disproportionately poor," Appeals Court Judge David Tatel told Hughes. "You have to have evidence that it will not have a retrogressive effect."
Hughes spent most of the time allotted for his closing remarks responding to challenges from the bench.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier this week that some national studies showed as many as a quarter of African-American voting age adults lacked photo identification compared with 8 percent for whites.
The U.S. government has argued that the law will force poor people to travel long distances to acquire an ID and it has noted that, unlike some other states, Texas does not waive the ID fees.
"How can we ask them to travel over 100 miles to get an ID?" District Court Judge Robert Wilkins asked Hughes.
Wilkins and Tatel were appointed by Democratic presidents.
District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer, the lone Republican appointee on the panel, also did not hesitate to challenge Texas' lawyer on the question of who would be ineligible to vote.
It is common for judges to interrupt lawyers during their closing arguments, often with the toughest questions that could decide the case.
But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in a conference call with reporters at the end of the trial, shrugged off speculation the panel might be leaning toward ruling against Texas.
"It would be a mistake sometimes to read into a person's point of view from the bench. We're not concerned by the court's questions and we believe we have solid answers for them," he said.
The panel is expected to issue a decision by the end of the summer. The case could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where its opponents hope it would be struck down.
In blocking the Texas law, the U.S. Department of Justice cited the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was enacted at a time of racial strife in the nation and designed to protect the voting rights of minorities, primarily blacks in Southern states.
Seventeen states have passed some version of a law requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls. The Justice Department has also blocked a South Carolina law, citing the Voting Rights Act, but the challenge has yet to reach the courts.
The Texas lawsuit for approval of the voter identification law is: State of Texas v. Holder in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 12-cv-128.
(Reporting by Drew Singer; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Paul Simao)