Strict North Carolina Voter ID Law Thwarted After Supreme Court Rejects Case
May 16, 2017, 4:18pm

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.

The leaders of North Carolina’s Republican-controlled Legislature vowed that they would seek to enact new voting restrictions after their defeat.

“All North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the common sense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote,” House Speaker Tim Moore and Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate, said in a statement.

But their options will be limited by the appeals court decision and will most likely face opposition from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the appeal.

“Today’s announcement is good news for North Carolina voters,” Mr. Cooper said in a statement. “We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder.”

The divisions in the state’s leadership, which led to a dispute about who represented the state in the case, figured in the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear it, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a statement that accompanied the court’s one-sentence order. He added that nothing should be read into the court’s decision to decline to hear the case.

The Supreme Court’s action set no precedent and will have no impact in most of the country. But it let stand the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s sweeping rejection of an array of voting restrictions by North Carolina.

The law, enacted by the state legislature in 2013, imposed a range of voting restrictions, including the new voter identification requirements. It was part of a wave of voting restrictions enacted after a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision that effectively struck down a central part of the federal Voting Rights Act, weakening federal oversight of voting rights.

The case challenging the North Carolina law was brought by civil rights groups and the Obama administration. A trial judge rejected arguments that the law violated the Constitution and what remained of the Voting Rights Act. But a three-judge panel of the appeals court disagreed.

The appeals court ruling struck down five parts of the law: its voter ID requirements, a rollback of early voting to 10 days from 17, an elimination of same-day registration and of preregistration of some teenagers, and its ban on counting votes cast in the wrong precinct.

The court found that all five restrictions “disproportionately affected African-Americans.” The law’s voter identification provision, for instance, “retained only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African-Americans.”

That was the case, the court said, even though the state had “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.” But it did find that there was evidence of fraud in absentee voting by mail, a method used disproportionately by white voters. The Legislature, however, exempted absentee voting from the photo ID requirement.

The court also found that the early voting restrictions had a much larger effect on black voters, who “disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting.” The law, the court said, eliminated one of two “souls to the polls” Sundays, when black churches provided rides to polling places.

Voting rights advocates had been watching the North Carolina case for signs of how a closely divided Supreme Court would rule on similar lawsuits now that Justice Gorsuch is on the court.

In September, a deadlocked Supreme Court turned down an emergency pre-election request from state officials to block the appeals court’s ruling. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan voted to reject the state’s arguments. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. would have temporarily reinstated parts of the law.

The decision on Monday not to hear the case turned on procedural issues, not on the substance of the suit, so the court’s current leanings remain unknown.

State officials asked the Supreme Court in December to hear their appeal in the case, North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, No. 16-833.

Two months later, in an unusual last-minute procedural maneuver, two newly elected Democratic officials — Mr. Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein — asked the court to dismiss the state’s petition seeking review. Lawyers for the General Assembly opposed the motion.

In his statement on Monday, Chief Justice Roberts said the Supreme Court’s decision to decline to grant the petition seeking review, or petition for certiorari, turned on that dispute.

“Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law,” the chief justice wrote, quoting an earlier decision, “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.’”

Civil liberties advocates, nevertheless, called it a victory for voting rights and — for now, at least — a precedent with broad application.

“This is the law of the land in the Fourth Circuit,” said Daniel T. Donovan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The justices are likely to take a more definitive position on voting rights issues when and if they hear one of several cases that appear bound for the court. The most likely candidate is a lawsuit challenging Texas’ 2011 voter identification law.

A federal district judge ruled in April that the Texas Legislature had intentionally discriminated against black and Hispanic voters when it enacted the law.