Houston lawyer Chad Dunn has twice prevented Texas from implementing one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. Just this week, he convinced a federal judge for the second time the Texas Legislature passed those laws with a ‘discriminatory purpose’ to keep Hispanic and African-Americans away from the voting booth. Dunn, who represents the plaintiffs opposed to the laws in Veasey v. Abbott, spoke with Texas Lawyer about how he convinced the court to strike down the state’s latest attempt at a voter ID law, what may happen on appeal, and whether the U.S. Supreme Court will finally have to consider Texas’ law on its merits to put the issue to rest.
Texas Lawyer: For the second time, U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos has given you exactly what you wanted by declaring that Texas’ Voter I.D. is discriminatory — specifically that the Texas Legislature passed it to discriminate against Hispanics and African Americans. What was your strongest evidence that prompted this ruling?
Chad Dunn: Texas engaged in what we call picking and choosing. When they picked which IDs would be allowed, they selected IDs that were disproportionately held by whites. Other reliable government-issued IDs that were held more often by Latinos and African-Americans were not included. Even in the latest bill they rushed through, some of the so-called fixes they added to the ID requirements benefited whites disproportionately. Then, the legislature appropriated no new money for a voter education campaign under either S.B. 14 or the new S.B. 5 bill. Legislative leaders were told the bill would disproportionately harm minority voters and they ran past practically every legislative rule of procedure to jam the bill through. The evidence offered took weeks to present and was overwhelming.
TL: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to appeal this decision back to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit has already partially upheld Ramos’ decision. What will an even narrower argument about this case look like on appeal?
Dunn: The earlier en banc ruling upheld the finding that the bill has a discriminatory impact. That ruling also held that the record included evidence of discriminatory intent but the circuit wanted the trial court to disregard some of that evidence. Nevertheless the earlier ruling clearly signaled that a majority of the circuit believes a finding of intent was supported by the record. Appellate courts are supposed to give great deference to trial court findings of intent. Three judges in D.C. and now this Judge in Texas have struck down this law. Texas has appealed all the way to the Supreme Court already. In my opinion, this appeal is frivolous and a huge waste of taxpayer resources.
TL: Texas has one of the most extreme Voter ID laws in the country — one that’s having trouble meeting judicial scrutiny at both the district court and at the Fifth Circuit. Do you think that it will take a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to finally resolve this case?
Dunn: There appears to be no limit to the state’s willingness to waste money in order to discriminate against Latinos, blacks, elderly and poor residents. Indeed some of the Republican “base” has been irresponsibly whipped into a fevered pitch about nonexisting voter fraud that would be addressed by this law. Texas can have an effective and fair photo voter identification law — it is not the court’s fault that Texas broke every rule that protects the franchise from government intrusion. I am hopeful that state leaders would sit down with stakeholders and get to work on such a law but I am not optimistic. As all too often has been the case, federal courts will have to continue to pick the civil and voting rights of Texas citizens.