This Week in Legal News: Anti-Homeless Legislation Draws Attention and the DOJ Sues Texas Over Voter ID Law

Constitutional questions in South Carolina and Texas highlight this week’s legal news, as local legislators come up against homeless advocates, minority rights activists, and the Department of Justice.  Aggressive legislation against homeless citizens and increased voting requirements have caught the eye, and the ire, of activist groups and the US Attorney General, setting the stage for Constitutional skirmishes in two southern states.

South Carolina Capital Approves Anti-Homeless Law

Columbia, South Carolina has approved a plan known as the “Emergency Homeless Response” with the intention of removing the city’s homeless population from the downtown area.  The ordinance will allow police officers to patrol downtown Columbia and enforce “quality of life” laws which ban loitering, public urination, aggressive panhandling, and other activities that homeless people typically engage in.  Officers will also be allowed to require homeless citizens to vacate downtown under the threat of arrest.

The city plans to partner with a local charity to open a 240-room shelter on the outskirts of town to house homeless who have been displaced, however, the shelter is not sufficient for the 1,500 homeless in Columbia.   Additionally, the shelter, a temporary measure, is located outside of the downtown area, making it difficult for homeless to return once they have been sent there.

While other cities have passed laws to keep homeless from city centers, the Columbia legislation seems to be one of the most aggressive policies to date.  By allowing police to arrest homeless who refuse to leave downtown, and by setting up a designated shelter to send homeless citizens rounded up by the new law, Columbia has taken steps beyond anti-homeless measures that have come before.  Homeless advocacy groups have already made rumblings of legal action to challenge the constitutionality of the law, claiming that the legislation violates freedom of assembly and the equal protection clause. 

Department of Justice Sues Texas over Voter ID Legislation

Attorney general Eric Holder has announced that the DOJ intends to file a lawsuit against Texas for a recent law requiring voters to present ID on election day.  Attorney general Holder claims that the law violates the rights of minority citizens who do not have ID, and vows to pursue the litigation in order to “protect voting rights of all eligible Americans.” 

The litigation comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike provisions of the Voting Rights Act that gave federal judges authority to intervene in Texas’ latest redistricting plans.  Federal judges had determined that Texas’ redistricting plan racially discriminated against minorities and was therefore not permitted, but the Supremes took away the federal court’s authority to make that decision and allowed Texas to proceed with its redistricting.  The June ruling does not take away the power of federal courts to strike down discriminatory voting practices – it simply removed sections of the Voting Rights Act that require certain states to have voting policy approved before implementation. 

Holder’s latest attempt to stifle alleged racially discriminatory practices in voting law relies on provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racially discriminatory voting policy.  In order for the suit against Texas’ Voter ID law to succeed, the DOJ must be able to prove that Texas has intentionally discriminated against minority voters.  Holder and other minority group leaders believe that the laws are designed to discourage minority voting by making it harder for black and Latin populations to legally register.

Texas, which maintains that the Voter ID law is designed to prevent voter fraud rather than to make it more difficult for minorities to vote, is prepared to fight the DOJ’s latest legal action.  Claiming the litigation is politically motivated, and not supported by facts, Texas officials appear confident that the latest litigation will be unsuccessful and the new Voter ID law will remain in effect.

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