Now that he’s Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is doing his very best to fulfill the warnings of those who said during his confirmation hearings that he’d be a disaster for civil and voting rights. Sessions’s DOJ dropped support Monday for part of a lawsuit against Texas’s voter ID law, which a federal court had determined discriminates against black and Latino voters. Sessions and the DOJ had previously requested the court delay judging whether the law was constitutional while Texas Republicans in the state legislature tinkered with it, but the court rejected that request.
DOJ lawyers will dismiss the department’s claim that the Voter ID law was written with the specific intent to discriminate, a key part of the case, although the DOJ will continue to argue the law has a discriminatory effect. Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, said that her group and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will continue to fight both claims in court even though Sessions is dropping out of the question of intent. In effect, Sessions is conceding the law discriminates, but darned if he knows whether the Texas Lege (the “national laboratory for bad government,” as Molly Ivins called it) really meant to make voting harder for minority voters. Things just turned out that way, maybe.
Lang told Talking Points Memo she wasn’t especially impressed with the decision to drop the question of intent, which the DOJ under Obama had aggressively pursued:
There have been six years of litigation and no change in the facts […] We have already had a nine-day trial and presented thousands of pages of documents demonstrating that the picking and choosing of what IDs count was entirely discriminatory and would fall more harshly on minority voters. So for the DOJ to come in and drop those claims just because of a change of administration is outrageous.
She added she expects that even with the Justice Department backing away on part of the case, she nonetheless expects to prevail in court. The law has been tied up in litigation since it was passed in 2011, with civil rights groups arguing it was deliberately intended to make voting more difficult for Democratic-leaning constituencies like minority groups and young people. For instance, the law allows a gun license as an acceptable form of photo ID for voting, but not a student ID, because Reasons. With Texas’s enthusiasm for students carrying concealed weapons on campus, you’d think the two types of ID would be equivalent. The plaintiffs also note that in some parts of Texas, the nearest office to get an acceptable photo ID may be as far away as 100 miles from voters’ homes, which for many poor people makes getting to vote almost as difficult as getting an abortion. Neither of which Texas wants people doing too much of.
The law was blocked from going into effect for the 2016 elections in a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; that decision allowed at least 16,000 Texans to vote who otherwise would have been turned away, which seems like the sort of thing that must be curtailed before too many of the wrong sort of people get it in their heads that voting is some kind of “right.”
Last summer, the appeals court agreed with the challengers, which then included the Justice Department, that the law had the effect of discriminating against minority voters, but it sent the question of whether the law was intentionally discriminatory back to the district court for further review after the election. The district court will hear arguments on that question in the hearing scheduled for Tuesday, but the Justice Department will no longer be on the side of voting rights advocates.
Honestly, that only seems fair. Since when was it the Justice Department’s business to get involved in voting rights cases anyway? Besides, Jeff Sessions has much more important work to do, like whipping up fear of violent crime, even though crime rates are at historic lows. In remarks he plans to deliver to the National Association of Attorneys General, Sessions acknowledges crime is down overall since the 1990s, but worries that any moment now, “like the first gusts of wind before a summer storm,” the crime rate could suddenly explode, because Barack Obama didn’t love cops enough. Sessions promises a lot more Law and Order, and looks forward to changing the sense among law enforcement that the federal government has “abandoned them,” the poor dears:
Their morale has suffered. And last year, amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased 10 percent over the year before.
Might Sessions be fudging his numbers a little? Not exactly. Deaths of law enforcement officers from all causes — including accidents and traffic fatalities — were up 10 percent in 2016 over 2015, but that figure also leaves out the fact that policing is far safer than in previous decades. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 135 cops died in 2016 (and yes, any death is terrible) but
That’s still lower than the average of the previous ten years, when total fatalities averaged just under 144 deaths per year. And it’s far lower than in decades past. According to NLEOMF data, in the 1970s, an average of 231 officers died each year. In the ’80s, the number who died each year never dipped below 175.
More importantly, 2016 data was increased by a small number of multiple shootings of officers, which skewed the one-year death rate upwards — again, a terrible thing, but hardly proof that we’re on the verge of anarchy and American Carnage.
You might think a long-term trend of declining crime rates and police deaths would be good news. But how the hell can you scare anyone that way? Maybe a compromise on these issues is possible: Allow people to vote only after they’ve been stopped and frisked.
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