Supreme Court Won't Hear Appeal on Controversial N.C. Voter ID Law
A pile of government pamphlets explaining North Carolina's controversial "Voter ID" law sits on table at a polling station as the law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. on March 15.Chris Keane / Reuters
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear North Carolina's appeal of a court ruling that found its legislature intended to discriminate against minorities in enacting one of the toughest voter ID laws in the nation.
The action leaves in place a federal appellate court ruling which previously struck down portions of the law and blocked enforcement.
As is the court's usual custom, no explanation was given for turning down the appeal, and no vote was noted. Chief Justice John Roberts said the state had produced a "blizzard of filings" over who was authorized to appeal. He noted that although the court declined to hear the case, the refusal expresses no opinion about the merits of the issue.
Shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina imposed a tough photo ID requirement, reduced the period for early voting by seven days, eliminated the ability to register and vote the same day, invalidated votes case in the wrong precinct, and ended pre-registration for 16-year-olds.
In a blistering decision last July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said the state legislature explicitly set out to discover the kind of accommodations that minority voters use most often and then to roll back or eliminate them, targeting African Americans "with almost surgical precision."
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A month later, the Supreme Court declined to block the ruling, which prevented the state from enforcing the voter restrictions. The justice were deadlocked by a 4-4 tie at the time.
A lawyer for the state, urging the Supreme Court to take its appeal, said the photo ID law is more lenient than one upheld by the court eight years ago. The law's other provisions were in effect in two earlier state-wide elections "in which African-American participation increased," said S. Kyle Duncan, of Washington, DC.
North Carolina's attorney general is not defending the law.
The appeals court decision "insults the people of North Carolina and their elected representatives by convicting them of abject racism," Duncan said. "That charge is incredible on its face given the pains the legislature took to ensure that no one's right to vote would be abridged."
The changes in the law put North Carolina in the mainstream of current state election practices, he said.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department urged the court not to take the case and to leave the lower court ruling in place that blocks enforcement of the voting restrictions. The government's brief was filed one day before Donald Trump was inaugurated. His Justice Department did not take a position on the case.
The NAACP also urged the Supreme Court to leave the lower court ruling intact. Some state have similar election practices, the group said, but that fact "cannot save or protect voting restrictions that are adopted with racial intent." And no other state "has simultaneously curtailed four different voting mechanisms disproportionately used by African Americans, while also imposing a strict photo ID requirement that excludes all forms of government-issued photo ID disproportionately held by African Americans," the NAACP said.
Civil liberties groups on Monday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the appeal.
“This is a victory against voter suppression and should send a message to other states that such extreme and racially discriminatory laws will be struck down,” Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that the move "brings to a close a long and protracted battle over a law deemed one of the most egregious voter suppression measures adopted in recent time."
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.