U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ordered Texas to tell all 254 counties in the state not to take any action, for the time being, on the list of registered voters sent to them in late January by Texas Secretary of State David Whitley's Office for citizenship verification.
Counties can attempt to verify whether registered voters are U.S. citizens as the case makes its way through the federal court system, but the court ordered Whitley to tell any counties taking action against people on the list to stop doing so. Biery also said that no county should remove anyone on the list from its voter rolls.
Whitley issued a press release and advisory to Texas' 254 counties about a month ago, warning that Texas had 95,000 potential noncitizens on its voter rolls. Whitley's announcement came on a Friday afternoon and got as much media attention as one would expect. Before the weekend was over, however, the list began to fall apart.
The Secretary of State's Office quickly advised a number of counties not to take action based on the list because it might contain the names of naturalized citizens. At a hearing before the state Senate's nominating committee, Whitley refused to take responsibility for jumping the gun with bad data, instead blaming the Texas Department of Public Safety. Advocacy groups filed three lawsuits against the state, claiming that the list and the actions Whitley initially demanded be taken unconstitutionally targeted naturalized citizens living in Texas.
Wednesday's ruling comes in a suit against Whitley and the state brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote in his opinion. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”
Thomas Buser-Clancy, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, celebrated Biery's decision.
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“This is an extremely important ruling to help prevent eligible voters in Texas from getting kicked off the voter rolls. Today, the court recognized what we have been saying all along: This voter purge discriminates against naturalized citizens using a process that the court described as ‘ham-handed’ and ‘threatening,’” Buser-Clancy said.
Whitley's office said it is preparing a "communication" to send to the state's counties.
"The Texas Secretary of State’s Office appreciates Judge Biery’s acknowledgment that the list maintenance process was performed in good faith to carry out statutory list maintenance duties," the office said in a statement.
Thanks to widespread backlash to his attempted voter purge, Whitley does not have the 21 votes he needs to be confirmed as secretary of state by the full Texas Senate. The Senate's nominating committee will vote on whether to send his nomination to the full Senate on Thursday.