Justices Thwart Strict Voter ID Law That Unevenly Hurt Blacks

In Judiciary and Courts, Racism, Voting On
- Updated

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday refused to revive a restrictive North Carolina voting law that a federal appeals court had struck down as an unconstitutional effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The court’s decision not to hear an appeal in the case effectively overturned one of the most far-reaching attempts by Republicans to counter what they contended, without evidence, was widespread voter fraud in North Carolina. The law rejected the forms of identification used disproportionately by blacks, including IDs issued to government employees, students and people receiving public assistance.

Democrats and civil rights groups, wary of the Supreme Court now that it has regained a conservative majority with the appointment of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, welcomed the announcement that it would not hear the case.

“An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing,” said Dale Ho, director of the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project.

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Win for Voting Rights Advocates, but Battles Are Ahead

“I think the right way to think about this is that North Carolina was a temporary victory in a very long war,” Heather K. Gerken, a scholar of election and constitutional law at Yale University, said in an interview. In an era of almost toxic partisanship, she said, “the court is the last bastion of legal craft, genuine argument and engagement.”

For a court already politicized by the Senate maneuvers that held up a Democratic president’s choice for the bench until a Republican took the White House, “the danger is that they themselves will become subject to those same forces of partisanship,” she said.

Some experts say they believe Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. used Monday’s decision to signal to Republican backers of restrictive voting laws that they should not abandon the fight. In an unusual statement, he noted pointedly that the justices had decided against taking up the case solely on technical grounds involving a dispute between the parties, and not on its merits. Chief Justice Roberts issued a similar statement in a decision in January rejecting Texas’ request to review a ruling against its voter ID law.

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The Voting Rights Act once would have made that debate moot in areas with a proven history of discrimination because those areas were required to clear election law changes with federal monitors — and proof of intent was not required to reject a change that had a discriminatory impact. But the Roberts court invalidated those provisions in its 2013 Shelby County ruling.

What remains prohibits voting discrimination nationwide, often a fairly straightforward task in cases like racial gerrymandering, when the dilution of minority voting power is measurable. But it is more difficult to prove in other cases like voter ID legislation, which may affect minorities more than whites, but nevertheless apply to everyone. Proving that such a law has depressed minority turnout at the polls, for example, is devilishly difficult.

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