Nina Perales, a longtime advocate for the rights of Latinos, helped stop a Texas voter-identification law from going into effect for the November election.
The Texas Legislature passed SB-14 in 2011. It requires voters to identify themselves at the polls with one of five forms of government-issued identification. In contrast to current law, all acceptable forms of identification — such as a driver’s license, a passport or a gun permit — would include a photo. The voter-registration certificate, issued by county registrars, would be insufficient on its own to allow its holder to vote.
Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in San Antonio, doesn’t want any of those restrictions; she wants to maintain the status quo.
“The beauty of the voter registration card is it comes to you and it is free,” she says.
On Aug. 30, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an opinion that meant SB-14 would not be effective for the November balloting. It was the result sought by Perales’ clients — Victoria Rodriguez and Nicole Rodriguez, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund — and their fellow intervenors in Texas v. Holder.
“Nina was instrumental,” says Dechert partner Ezra Rosenberg who represented the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, also an intervenor in the Texas voter-identification litigation. The Princeton, N.J., lawyer says Perales creatively and strategically prepared court arguments and witnesses — efforts that culminated in a court barring SB-14 from becoming effective before November’s balloting.
“She helped to put a human face on what was otherwise a fairly abstract argument,” says Adam Harris, another co-counsel in the SB-14 battle and an associate with New York’s Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Harris, who represents The Texas League of Young Voters Education Fund, says Perales helped her co-counsel find and select witnesses who authoritatively could tell the stories of the real prospective voters in Texas who would have difficulty meeting the new identification requirements of SB-14.
According to the Aug. 30 opinion, which handed a victory to Perales’ clients, Gov. Rick Perry signed SB-14 into law May 27, 2011. But §5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 barred Texas from enforcing the law until the state obtained preclearance from either U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s office or a three-judge panel of the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C. Holder’s office had not yet issued its ruling on Texas’ request for preclearance when the state on Jan. 24 filed a complaint with the D.C. district court on the basis of a preclearance denial the AG had issued to South Carolina about its voter-identification law. In its complaint, Texas named Holder’s office as the defendant and sought declaratory relief asking the court to provide preclearance for SB-14.
On March 12, the opinion continues, Holder denied Texas preclearance and concluded that the state had failed to show that the law would not have “the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race.” The federal court granted the right to intervene on the federal government’s behalf to Perales’ clients and to other individual voters, voting-rights groups and advocates for minorities. The court ordered that all the intervenors consolidate their briefing and arguments. Texas requested an expedited trial, the court agreed, and the trial began July 9, lasting for one week with 20 witnesses testifying.
To issue a ruling before the November election, the opinion continues, the panel held off on deciding Texas’ claim that §5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional — a claim still pending in this case, as well as in a case from Shelby, Ala. that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Nov. 9 to hear.
In August, the district court denied the state’s motion forpreclearance for SB-14′s proposed changes. “Undisputed record evidence demonstrates that racial minorities in Texas are disproportionally likely to live in poverty and, because SB-14 will weigh more heavily on the poor, the law will likely have retrogressive effect,” the three-judge panel’s opinion states.
The panel found that neither side had produced convincing statistics to show how the law’s new identification requirements would create obstacles for different racial groups. But the court wrote that,without hard numbers, it relied in part on the testimony of Lydia Camarillo, a Texas voter education specialist who has worked for more than 35 years in the Hispanic community.
Rosenberg says Perales had introduced Camarillo to the co-counsel for the intervenors and prepared Camarillo to testify at the trial. The court opinion notes that Camarillo testified: “Latinos are often among the working poor. . . . Latinos struggling to afford groceries, rent, and child care may not be able to afford . . . a copy of a birth certificate in order to get a voter ID.” Further, she testified, “For working class Latinos, the requirement of travelling to the DPS during regular business hours may prevent them from obtaining ID because their work hours are not flexible.”
Of Perales,”I was extraordinarily impressed with her, her participation, her energy, her creativity,” says Rosenberg.
A graduate of Columbia University School of Law, Perales has worked for MALDEF since 1996 and is no stranger to civil rights litigation. She represented those challenging Arizona’s SB-1070 legislation and Texas clients challenging a Farmers Branch ordinance requiring would-be renters to provide proof of lawful presence in the country.
Harris says Perales “was a huge part in this victory. She had a leadership role,” he says, by helping devise trial strategy. Because many of the lawyers were not from Texas, Harris says, they relied upon Perales to provide “the perspective on the ground” and tell them how the identification rules would make it more difficult for Texas voters.