The Trump administration has scaled back its assault on a strict Texas voter identification law that federal courts have ruled discriminated against minorities, portending a shift in how the Justice Department plans to pursue allegations of voter suppression.
The government revealed its decision in papers filed in federal court Monday, dealing a blow to civil rights advocates who have relied on federal support to help them knock down the Texas statute.
"It's a very concerning signal to American voters about the Department of Justice's commitment to enforcing the Voting Rights Act," said Danielle Lang, deputy director of the voting rights unit of the Campaign Legal Center, which is suing Texas in the case.
The administration's partial retreat in the dispute highlights how Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican who has championed voter identification measures, is expected to handle such cases. The Obama administration had joined civil rights groups in aggressively challenging the Texas law and other such measures around the country.
At issue in the case was how the Justice Department would proceed in a federal lawsuit that alleged the Texas Legislature discriminated against minority voters when it enacted the strict voter identification law in 2011.
Known as SB 14, the measure requires voters to present a specific form of government-issued photo identification — such as a driver's license, military ID card, U.S. passport or citizenship certificate — to be permitted to cast a ballot.
The Obama administration and civil rights groups argued the state pushed the law in part to suppress the power of the state's minority voters, who frequently don't drive or have a passport.
State officials and lawmakers countered that the law was aimed at preventing voter fraud, though there is scant evidence that the problem exists.
The law was challenged in court by civil rights groups and the Justice Department under provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was intended to help overcome legal barriers erected at the local and state level to keep African Americans from the polls.
In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the Texas law had a discriminatory effect on minority voters. It told U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to craft a temporary remedy in time for the November elections.
Ramos subsequently ordered Texas to permit voters to present other forms of documentation to verify their identities. The judge's order is expected to remain in force until she imposes a permanent remedy or Texas addresses the judges' concerns.
According to the court papers filed Monday, the Justice Department will continue to work with civil rights groups to address those issues but will seek to withdraw from another important aspect of the suit.
In the same decision that found the Texas law had a discriminatory effect, the appeals court reversed Ramos' finding that Texas legislators had intended to harm minority voters.
It ordered Ramos to reconsider the evidence of that finding.
If the judge determines discriminatory intent in crafting the voter ID requirements, she could throw out the entire law. Civil rights groups will continue to press that claim.
In its court filing, the Justice Department asked Ramos to permit it to withdraw its claim that Texas acted with intent, arguing that it is best to give the Texas Legislature time to address the matter.
With the loss of their key ally in court, civil rights groups will argue on their own in an effort to prove that Texas acted with a discriminatory purpose in passing the law. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Voting advocates complained that the Trump administration was backing away from a key safeguard of voting rights.
The Justice Department decision "defies rationality and stands diametrically opposed to positions they have taken at every stage of this litigation,” Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "This reversal of position was taken despite years of work and effort that the government has invested in fighting the Texas Voter ID law, one of the most discriminatory voting restriction of its kind."