AUSTIN -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder affirmed Thursday that the battle over Texas voting laws isn't over.
"Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department will ask a federal court in Texas to subject the State of Texas to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act," holder said while speaking before the Urban League in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent discrimination at the polls. Section 5 required states with a history of discrimination to get approval before making changes to voting laws, a process called "preclearance."
Most recently, Section 5 was used to block a controversial voter ID law and voting maps passed by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature that were both found discriminatory by federal judges. The ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in the case of Texas v. Holder, and was overturned after the high court's June ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively neutralized Section 5 by striking down the formula determined which jurisdictions are covered.
"Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented just last year in the redistricting case of Texas v. Holder, as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized, we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process," Holder said Thursday.
Many Texas Democrats responded with praise for Holder, saying the nation's top attorney was doing the right thing.
"This is the only state in which our redistricting plans were found in federal court to be intentionally discriminatory. So for anybody who thinks that the State of Texas does not still need supervision when it comes to these voting rights issues, you're just not looking," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston). "The Texas case presents the best set of facts for people on my side to show that a large number of people will be disenfranchised."
"Minorities are marginalized in the current map and are given much less political weight because of gerrymandering. Because a bipartisan 3-judge court has already ruled that the base map for the current plan intentionally discriminates against African-Americans and Latinos, we feel that we can prevail," Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe said in a statement. "In the 1960's it was necessary for the United States to come to the aid or minorities in Texas, and sadly it is still necessary."
Holder announced plans to pursue a separate section of the Voting Rights Act which allows federal courts to require preclearance after finding evidence of discrimination, a process called "bail in." Yet as in previous disputes over Texas voting laws, Holder and the Obama Administration will face stiff opposition from the state's Republican attorney general.
"You have now seen the Obama Administration team up with the Texas Democrat Party to sue the State of Texas, so clearly they are using the Voting Rights Act for partisan political purposes," Abbott told KVUE Thursday. "They are using this clearly to try to impact the 2014 elections. What they've done actually is harm racial minorities. They've done it this way: By redrawing the maps the way they did, they were able to exclude four Hispanic Republicans."
Abbott is confident the interim maps drawn by federal judges in San Antonio and formally adopted with minor changes during the first special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature will survive judicial scrutiny and be in place for the 2014 primaries to be held on time. He suggests while the voter ID law could once again see delays in implementation, the original courts' finding of deliberate discrimination in both instances will eventually be overturned.
"If lower court decisions mattered, 'Obamacare' would not exist today because we won at the lower court in the Obamacare case, the Supreme Court disagreed. Same thing happened with regard to the voter ID and the redistricting case," said Abbott. "Every time we have been to the United States Supreme Court in our redistricting fights, we have won and had the lower court overturned. Those lower court decisions don't exist anymore. They were vacated because of the recent Supreme Court decision."
Abbott emphasizes that the Voting Rights Act itself is still in effect, arguing that the law's protections extend to all states regardless of the preclearance provision. He points to similar, but not identical, voter ID laws in other states which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence Texas is being unfairly targeted.
"Election laws belong to the states to implement, and it's highly unusual for the United States government to apply one set of laws to one state, and a different set of laws to another state," said Abbott. "So we feel confident that when this matter is ended, when the sun sets on it, we're going to wind up victorious. It's just a matter of having to go through the rigamarole of dealing with a partisan political lawsuit between now and getting to the end product out of the United States Supreme Court."
"Once again, the Obama Administration is demonstrating utter contempt for our country's system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution," Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) said in a statement Thursday. "This end-run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and casts unfair aspersions on our state's common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process."
"I am all for state's rights, but in this instance the state is wrong," said Ellis, who argues that the Texas voter ID law is far more restrictive than similar laws in other states. Holder said the morning announcement is the first action by the U.S. Department of Justice following the high court's ruling, but it won't be the last.
"Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court's ruling, we plan in the meantime to utilize the law's remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected," said Holder. "My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found."
What's clear is this battle isn't over.