Department of Justice withdraws from part of voter ID lawsuit in Texas

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Department of Justice has just dropped out of a portion of a voting rights lawsuit in Texas that could signal a shift in stance on the issue since Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general.

The case at the heart of this latest legal drama centers on voter identification laws that were put in place in Texas in 2011 that require voters to have one of seven forms of ID. The law was controversial because voting rights groups -- and the DOJ under the Obama administration -- argued that the law discriminated against minorities who may not have those types of ID.

Prior to Monday, the DOJ had been working with a number of voting rights advocacy groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, in bringing the suit against the state of Texas over the legality of the voter ID requirements.

Now, however, the DOJ has withdrawn from part of the lawsuit, and even though the suit will carry on because of the other advocacy groups that are part of the case, it is being seen as a possible shift in policy.

"I have no reason to believe that this will affect the outcome of this case, but it is a disturbing signal from the Department of Justice," said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center's democracy program.

Weiser explained that there are essentially two different parts of the lawsuit: The first is that the voter ID law in Texas did discriminate against minority voters (that is, the effect of the law), while the second part asserted that the law's intention was to discriminate against minority voters (that is, the intent of the law).

The district court ruled in favor of the DOJ and the groups on both counts, but the suit then went up to a circuit court on appeal. At that point, Weiser said that the circuit court deemed that "yes, you win" on the first part of the suit, but the court ruled that there would be "a do-over" on the second part regarding the law's intent.

In Monday's filing, the DOJ withdrew from that remaining part of the suit that argues that the voter ID laws were intentionally discriminatory.

The case will continue with the other groups involved in arguing the lawsuit. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

"The Department of Justice, for a very long time, has been arguing that Texas intentionally discriminated, and has built a very strong case," Weiser said.

"There clearly has been a shift in the department's position and strategy in the new administration. Beforehand, it was vigorously prosecuting the intent claim, and now it is stepping back from enforcing that claim, so there's a real fear that this could signal a retrenchment in voting rights enforcement by the Department of Justice and it's certainly a retrenchment in this particular case," she added.

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