WASHINGTON – The U.S. Justice Department is preparing to take fresh legal action in a string of voting rights cases across the nation, part of a new attempt to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court ruling that the Obama administration has warned will imperil minority representation.
The decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting issues and will likely spark a new round of politically contentious litigation that could return consideration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the country’s highest court.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to intervene in a Texas redistricting case Thursday follows a ruling by the Supreme Court last month that invalidated a critical section of the historic legislation. The justices threw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states with a history of discrimination had to be granted Justice Department or court approval before making voting law changes.
Holder’s action was praised by civil rights groups but harshly criticized by Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry said it demonstrated the “utter contempt” of President Barack Obama’s administration for the Constitution.
The Justice Department’s intervention in Texas will now focus attention on those sections of the Voting Rights Act that were untouched by the top court’s ruling last month in Shelby County v. Holder, a case out of Alabama, according to election law experts.
“This is a big deal,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. “It shows that the Department of Justice is going to use whatever tools it has remaining in its arsenal to protect minority voting rights. But the issue could well end up back before the Supreme Court, perhaps even this coming term.”
Holder is expected to use Sections 2 and 3 of the Voting Rights Act to take legal action to prevent states from implementing certain laws, including requirements to present certain kinds of identification in order to vote. As with Texas, the department is also expected to try to force certain states to get approval before they can change their election laws.
“Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure the voting rights of all American citizens are protected,” Holder said in a speech Thursday to the National Urban League conference in Philadelphia.
Holder announced that, in a first step, the department will support a lawsuit in Texas that was brought by a coalition of Democratic legislators and civil rights groups against the state’s redistricting plan. Holder is also asking the court to require Texas to submit all voting law changes to the Justice Department for approval for a 10-year period because of its history of discrimination.
The Justice Department may also sue Texas soon over its voter ID law, as well as North Carolina, if that state passes a new voter ID law. The Obama administration opposed the Texas law when it was signed in 2011 by Perry, saying it endangered minority voting rights. Texas was one of eight states to pass voter-ID laws that year.
Supporters of the measures, which were signed by one independent and seven Republican governors, said that requiring voters to show specific photo IDs would prevent voter fraud. But critics of the laws said they could hurt turnout among minority voters and others.
Because of Texas’ history of discrimination, the voter ID law had to be cleared by the Justice Department, which blocked the legislation, saying it would endanger minority voting rights. Texas sued the department, leading to a trial last summer.
Last August, the U.S. District Court in Washington prevented the law from going into effect, ruling that it would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens” on poor minority voters.
Hours after last month’s Supreme Court ruling on voting rights, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would move forward with its voter ID law and would also carry out the redistricting changes, which have been mired in court battles. Holder said that is exactly why the Justice Department is moving forward with its new strategy.
“Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued a deeply disappointing — and flawed — decision that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cornerstone of modern civil rights law,” Holder said in Philadelphia.
The court did not strike down the law itself or the provision that calls for special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination. But it said that Congress has to come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements.
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