The Supreme Court’s Other Voting Rights Decisions This Week

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On its last day of the term, the Supreme Court delivered two more blows to the Voting Rights Act.

Two days ago, the court ruled that the law’s key provision, which requires several states to pre-clear voting changes with the government, was invalid.

Then on Thursday, it vacated two voter discrimination cases in Texas that could have long-term repercussions in the battle for voting rights.

Here’s what happened: Texas had appealed two rulings by the D.C. federal court — one blocking a set of 2011 redistricting maps, and another blocking its voter ID law — that found both policies were discriminatory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court sent both cases back to the federal court for “further consideration” in light of its decision to strike down the VRA’s pre-clearance formula. That means the federal court will most likely have to reverse both decisions, given that pre-clearance no longer exists.

The Supreme Court’s move wasn’t unexpected, several legal experts said, given its decision on Tuesday. But it marks the beginning of the fallout from the landmark ruling — and legal experts on voting rights say this will make it more difficult to argue future voter discrimination lawsuits in Texas.

“It absolutely makes it harder,” said Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that litigates cases on election law nationwide. “Everything that’s happened this week has been a setback.”

Both of the D.C. rulings were striking because of the forceful language the judges used in their rulings. The D.C. court found the legislators deliberately sought to draw maps that would dilute the minority vote without looking like they were discriminating in order to “pass muster for the Voting Rights Act.” And the voter ID law, the court said, “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”

Those rulings now no longer stand, which means the decisions can’t be relied on by other judges considering discrimination cases in the state. But that doesn’t mean attorneys won’t keep bringing them up in court. “It will certainly shape and shade the background for continuing litigation,” said Justin Levitt, an associate law professor at Loyala Law School in Los Angeles. “The former findings don’t have any legal effect, but they don’t disappear from history. … Other courts … are certainly going to have that in mind.”

Hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Texas already said that it would implement its voter ID law. It had also suggested it might approve the 2011 maps as well, but after an injunction filed Wednesday, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a set of interim maps instead.

Several other states — including four that were previously under the pre-clearance requirement — are moving ahead with voter ID laws, most of which should take effect for the Congressional election in 2014. But Texas is starting much sooner, with local elections in November.

A challenge to the Texas voter ID law was filed on Wednesday, drawing heavily on language from the federal court ruling that the Supreme Court just threw out. The suit charges that the law intentionally discriminates against black and Latino voters. Among the plaintiffs: A Latina woman from Fort Worth whose name on her voter registration card doesn’t match her driver’s license, complicating her efforts to vote.

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