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Supreme Court Won’t Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law

‘Racially discriminatory intent’

Tourists walk on the plaza of the Supreme Court on April 11, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Tourists walk on the plaza of the Supreme Court on April 11, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear a voting rights case out of North Carolina, leaving in place a federal appeals court ruling that struck down the state’s photo identification requirement and other election changes as motivated by “racially discriminatory intent.”

The fight over the North Carolina law — and the explanation of Chief Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to let the lower court’s ruling stand — reflects the deeply divided political culture in the Tar Heel State.

The decision also represents a success for voter rights advocates concerned about the fallout from a  2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a key enforcement provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

“This law, enacted with what the appeals court called discriminatory intent and ‘almost surgical precision’ targeting African-American voters, is meeting its much-deserved demise,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a written statement. “An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing.”

Republicans in North Carolina enacted the law in 2013 in the wake of a 5-4 decision in Holder v. Shelby County, which struck a requirement that certain states must have election law changes “precleared” by the Justice Department before implementation. Along with the photo ID requirement, the state law curtailed early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found the state General Assembly had enacted provisions of the law with discriminatory intent and blocked those provisions for the 2016 elections. The 4th Circuit ruling highlighted how North Carolina’s law had restrictions of procedures that heavily affect African Americans to the benefit of one political party and to the disadvantage of the other.

State officials appealed the 4th Circuit ruling. But then Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship and Democrat Josh Stein became attorney general in January, and the new officials moved to drop the appeal at the Supreme Court.

North Carolina’s General Assembly and Republican lawmakers tried to revive the case in arguments about whether the attorney general can dismiss the appeal, Roberts wrote in a two-page statement about why the court won’t hear the case.

“Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law, it is important to recall our frequent admonition that ‘[t]he denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case.’” Roberts wrote.

An election law fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Hans von Spakovsky, said in a written statement that it is disappointing “the Supreme Court did not accept for review an obviously wrong decision by a 4th Circuit panel that doesn’t follow the Court’s own precedent and other decisions on voter ID by other federal courts.”

Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who follows election law litigation, wrote on his blog Monday that the 4th Circuit decision is important because it used partisan discrimination as a proxy for race discrimination.

“This controversial theory is an important one going forward in dealing with laws passed by white Republican legislatures in Southern states for self-interested reasons,” Hasen wrote. “While the Court could well issue an adverse decision in the future, the 4th Circuit opinion stays on the books for now, and it has already been relied upon to hold other strict voting laws illegal” such as in Texas.

The case is North Carolina, et al. v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, et al., Docket No. 16-833.

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