In a move that drew the ire of Texas officials, Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department asked a San Antonio-based federal court to force Texas to get permission from the federal government before it can make any additional changes to its voting and election laws.
The challenge to Texas' authority comes after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. The high court’s 5-4 decision invalidated a rule that singled out certain states, like Texas and North Carolina, and forced them to get Justice Department approval before changing their election rules.
The Voting Rights Act was a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power. The court did not unravel the law itself, but questioned the validity of the allegedly outdated criteria used to select which states would be singled out.
Following the decision, Holder had publicly pledged to aggressively use his department’s power to block or halt any new state laws it views as discriminatory. He took his first step in that direction on Thursday.
Holder, during a speech to the Urban League in Philadelphia, said that based on evidence of racial discrimination presented last year in a redistricting case in Texas, "we believe that the state of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices."
The DOJ submitted the court filing later in the day.
Texas officials blasted the intervention.
"Once again, the Obama Administration is demonstrating utter contempt for our country's system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution. This end-run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and casts unfair aspersions on our state's common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process," Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn accused Holder of trying to go around the high court. "This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda," Cornyn said.
But Holder, in calling for the court action, said that in Texas, there is a history of "pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities."
It is the department's first action to address the voting rights law following the Supreme Court's decision on June 25, "but it will not be our last," Holder said.
In the Texas case, the department is not directly intervening but was filing what's known as a statement of interest in support of the private groups that have filed suit.
A three-judge panel in San Antonio has been looking at Texas voting maps since 2011, when the court threw out boundaries drawn by a then-GOP supermajority in the statehouse.
Under the direction of GOP Gov. Rick Perry last month, the Legislature ratified those interim maps as permanent over the objection of Democrats, who still believe the maps are biased and underrepresent minorities.
The requirement to obtain "pre-approval" from either the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to voting laws is available when intentional voting discrimination is found.
Holder also said: “Despite the court's decision, I believe we must regard this setback not as a defeat but as an historic opportunity for Congress to restore and even to strengthen modern voting protections."
"Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court's ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law's remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected."
The attorney general called the Voting Rights Act "the cornerstone of modern civil rights law" and said that "we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.