WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sidestepped the politically divisive issue of voting rights Monday, refusing to reconsider a lower court's ruling that a North Carolina photo-ID law discriminated against black voters "with almost surgical precision."
The justices denied the state's case in part because North Carolina's government changed hands in November, and the new Democratic governor does not support the law, championed by his Republican predecessor.
The North Carolina case dates back to an array of voting restrictions enacted in 2013, immediately after the Supreme Court in a landmark case freed mostly Southern states with a history of voting discrimination from pre-clearing election law changes with the federal government.
Citing "the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina," a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in July that state lawmakers intentionally imposed the restrictions to make it more difficult for blacks to vote.
"The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," the judges said. "They constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist."
Chief Justice John Roberts cautioned against reading too much into the court's refusal to hear the state's challenge, noting the state attorney general's office had sought to withdraw its challenge while the Republican-controlled state Legislature sought to defend the law.
"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 'the denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case,'" he said, quoting from a nearly century-old precedent.
But opponents of the North Carolina law — considered by some voting rights advocates to be the most restrictive in the nation — declared victory. They noted that the state's four-year effort to restrict voting now is dead.
“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,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's voting rights project. “An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing.”
Texas case heading to court
Another case involving Texas's photo identification requirements also is heading toward the court, raising a different issue: whether that law harms racial minorities, regardless of its intent. The justices may decide to hear that case instead.
Last June, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, a generally conservative court, ruled 9-6 that Texas' law was not intended to discriminate but had that effect on minority voters. The law could have left up to 600,000 voters without the proper identification in this fall's elections, opponents claimed.
The North Carolina and Texas laws were enacted following the Supreme Court's ruling in a 2013 Alabama case. The justices by a 5-4 vote struck down part of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal permission before changing voting procedures.
While Texas imposed the toughest photo ID rules, North Carolina's law was the most expansive of any in the nation. In addition to identification requirements, it eliminated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting and reduced early voting.
The law was challenged by the North Carolina NAACP and other civil rights groups, along with the U.S. Department of Justice. But under President Trump, the Justice Department has not pressed its prior objections and has reversed its position on the Texas law.