U.S. Justice Dept. wants renewed authority over Texas voting laws
WASHINGTON/PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice plans to ask a federal court to reinstate its authority over voting laws in Texas, part of a new Obama administration strategy to challenge state and local election laws it says discriminate by race, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday.
"Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder ... we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices," Holder told the annual conference of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, which is meeting in Philadelphia.
The Obama administration has been searching for new ways to oppose voting discrimination since the U.S. Supreme Court in June invalidated a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A 5-4 conservative majority on the high court ruled that a formula used to determine which states and localities were subject to extra federal scrutiny was outdated.
The ruling freed Texas and select other jurisdictions from having to submit their voting laws to the Justice Department before they could take effect.
The covered jurisdictions were mostly in the South, a region where officials had a history of denying minorities the right to vote. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the high court's ruling that the South had changed dramatically.
Holder's Justice Department had used the process known as "preclearance" to block, among other laws, a new plan for congressional district lines in Texas drawn after the 2010 U.S. Census. Government lawyers and civil rights groups convinced a court that the map, if it took effect, would have too few black and Hispanic districts.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, said after the Supreme Court ruling that the redistricting plan could then go into effect immediately.
State lawmakers ultimately approved a map that was deemed friendlier to minority populations, though state Democrats still criticize it.
As a first step in its new strategy, the Justice Department plans to make clear it supports a pending lawsuit that racial minorities brought against the redistricting plan in federal court in Texas.
If the court agrees the plan was racially discriminatory, then the Justice Department will ask the court to place Texas back in the preclearance process for an undetermined period of time, according to Holder's prepared speech.
"This is the Department's first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last," Holder, the first black U.S. attorney general, told the group.
The Supreme Court in its June ruling left in place the preclearance process and most other parts of the Voting Rights Act, invalidating only the formula for states and localities to be subjected automatically to extra scrutiny.
Some members of Congress have discussed passing a new formula that would comply with the Supreme Court's ruling, but they have not done so.
(Reporting by David Ingram and Dave Warner; Editing by Scott Malone and Maureen Bavdek)