High court disposes of pending voting rights, same-sex marriage appeals

Story highlights

  • Federal courts will reconsider Texas voting cases
  • Action followings major ruling on Voting Rights Act
  • Cases from around the country will get a fresh look
The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered another look at lower court rulings blocking enforcement of two Texas laws dealing with voter identification and political voting boundaries.
The move Thursday came two days after the court's conservative majority struck down a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act, weakening federal oversight of states and counties with a past history of discrimination at the polls.
These Texas cases could provide the first indication of how the U.S. Justice Department and the federal courts will handle fresh challenges to voting procedures in certain "covered" parts of the country.
Amid the dramatic setback in the scope and enforcement of the Votings Right Act, the high court's action will allow Texas to implement the laws -- at least for now.
There was no immediate indication when a federal court could begin rehearing the cases.
The conservative majority Tuesday struck down the Voting Rights Act formula used to determine which states and localities could be subject to the unusual open-ended oversight by federal authorities.
The law had mandated any changes in voting laws and procedures in all or parts of 15 covered states -- mostly in the South-- must be "pre-cleared" with Washington. That could include something as simple as moving a polling place temporarily across the street.
But with the formula now declared outdated and unconstitutional, pending voting discrimination cases from states around the country now will get a fresh legal look.
Top Texas officials have already said they will go ahead and put the laws on the books.
"With today's decision, the state's voter ID law will take effect immediately," said state Attorney General Greg Abbott. "Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government."
A federal court in Washington last year had blocked implementation of Texas Senate Bill 14, which would require potential voters to produce official photo identification. State officials say it was an effort to stop voter fraud and to purge voter rolls of outdated information. Opponents of the laws say the burdensome rules disenfranchise poor, minority and disabled voters.
Obama administration officials had concluded there was little evidence of voter fraud in Texas warranting the legislative changes. The Justice Department rejected the Texas law, passed in 2011, using the state's own statistics to show about 600,000 registered voters there lack a state-issued driver's license or identification card.
Election fraud investigations by the Texas attorney general's office in the past decade have resulted in 50 convictions, Abbott said.
But a coalition of minority and civil rights groups has said the Texas law was among the most restrictive in the nation.
At issue in the other case were competing maps for the Texas state legislative and congressional districts -- created first by Republican lawmakers that favored their political base, and later by a federal judicial panel to give minorities greater voting power.
The court-drawn map was imposed after Democrats and minority groups in Texas challenged the original plan approved by the GOP-led Legislature. The Supreme Court has sent the case back to a lower federal court to reconsider the matter.
The political stakes are huge: Texas gains four new congressional seats based on the newly completed census, and this ruling could help determine whether Democrats can wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Republicans.
The legal stakes are just as important -- creating standards courts must use when evaluating voting boundaries. The map Texas legislators wanted was never used during last November's elections.
The state redistricting case is Texas v. U.S. (12-496). The Texas voter ID law appeal is Texas v. Holder (12-1208).
The justices' orders came on the last act of scheduled business before they begin a three-month recess. The court still will handle emergency appeals, including requests for stays of execution, and other routine matters.
Dismissal of cases now puts issue on the state level
In separate action, the Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed 10 separate pending cases dealing with same-sex marriage. Consideration of those appeals was put on hold while the justices wrested with two challenges of state and federal law.
In landmark rulings, the court Wednesday gave the gay and lesbian rights movement huge political and legal momentum.
The justices said legally married same-sex couples will now enjoy the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples, striking down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act. And while not granting a sweeping right of homosexuals to marry nationwide, a separate high court ruling effectively allows same-sex marriage to resume in California, the nation's largest state.
Dozens of plaintiffs had sued under DOMA, many of them federal employees whose spouses could not enjoy tax breaks, Social Security, pension and bankruptcy benefits, along with family medical leave protections and other provisions.
The one appeal the high court accepted was from Edith "Edie" Windsor, who was forced to assume an estate tax bill much larger than heterosexual married couples would have to pay. Because her decades-long partner was a woman, the federal government did not recognize their same-sex marriage in legal terms, even though their home state of New York did. Windsor's spouse, Thea Spyer, died several years ago.
The decision by the high court to put the other pending sex-sex marriage appeals aside was for mostly procedural reasons, and not necessarily a reflection on the merits of each individual appeal. The petitions raised similar issues raised in the Windsor case, and those plaintiffs, like Windsor herself, will now benefit from the high court's ruling.
Also rejected for review by the high court was a challenge to Nevada's law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The state has an existing domestic-partnership law giving gay and lesbian couples nearly all the rights, responsibilities and benefits as opposite-sex couples, without calling it marriage.
A federal judge had ruled the voter referendum constitutional, and now an appeals court in San Francisco will take up the legal challenge.
And an appeal from Arizona was also dismissed. At issue was whether a state that prohibits same-sex marriage could also deny same-sex couples shared health care benefits when one of the partners is as a state employee. A federal court had tossed out that law as unconstitutional.
By rejecting any further consideration of the same-sex marriage issue for now, the justices seem prepared to let the political branches at the state and federal level handle implementation. Further legal challenges are a certainty, but may not percolate back up the U.S. Supreme Court for many months, if not years.