Pennsylvania Judge Upholds Voter ID Law

The Pennsylvania case ranks among the most widely watched because of its potential to impact the presidential race in a critical swing state.
by , Kathy A. Gambrell | August 15, 2012
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Today long-awaited ruling was most likely a pit stop -- maybe just the first -- on the road to settling, or scuttling, the state's controversial voter identification law.

Even before Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. released his decision, lawyers on both sides of the case had pledged to appeal the ruling.

A petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected within days, if not hours. More legal briefs and courtroom arguments are expected. Others have been eyeing a parallel challenge in federal court.

Simpson denied a request for a preliminary injunction blocking the state from implementing the law, which requires voters to show state-issued identification before casting ballots.

Opponents complained the new law will unfairly bar as many as 1 million Pennsylvanians from the polls. Supporters say it was necessary to prevent election fraud.

Nineteen states have toughened their voter identification laws in the past two years. Challenges are pending in more than a third, including in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Texas and Florida.

The Pennsylvania case ranks among the most widely watched because of its potential to impact the presidential race in a critical swing state.

That's one reason observers expect the state's high court to put the case on a fast track.

"My expectation is that everybody involved here understands the stakes," said Seth Kreimer, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the petitioners in the case.

The looming appeal also poses political intrigue for commonwealth insiders.

Because of the appeal, Simpson's role was essentially to be the fact-finder in the case. The ultimate decision -- on the law's constitutionality -- rests in the hands of a divided Supreme Court. With Justice Joan Orie Melvin suspended, the state's highest court has just six members, an even split of Democrats and Republicans. Party affiliation might be irrelevant in many cases, but the politics are baked deeply into this one.

Republicans pushed the law through the legislature with a party-line vote, and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) famously declared that the law would help GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney win the state. Democrats pounced on that, contending it proved the law was concocted purely for political reasons.

A 3-3 split by the high court would leave Simpson's ruling intact. For the Supreme Court to settle the case, one justice would have to buck his or her party line.

Observers are particularly focused on the role Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Republican, could play in the case.

Castille irked some Republicans when he delivered the majority opinion this year that threw out a plan by GOP lawmakers to redraw Pennsylvania's legislative map. His role in the voter ID case could burnish his party bona fides, or burn them.

"We already had one political test case, and he was the swing vote," said Terry Madonna, who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

Though the law has national implications, the federal courts have no clear jurisdiction.

"In the usual course of events, you would say this is a state's determination under the state's constitution," Kreimer said. "Once the state constitution has been interpreted by the state courts, the federal courts have, one would think, no role to play."

But the professor cautioned that nothing is guaranteed.

"People can presumably get creative," he said, referring to the legal battle that led Florida's disputed 2000 election results to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What's more likely, if the state courts uphold the ID law, are federal lawsuits challenging it as a violation of the civil rights protected by the federal Voting Rights Act.

Opponents of the law released survey results suggesting it is discriminatory because a disproportionate number of Latino voters lacked the valid state-issued identification needed to cast ballots.

Vic Walczak, state legal director for ACLU, said before the ruling that his organization had no plans for a federal challenge, but he believed other groups were girding for one.

"If we lose, I would frankly be surprised if there are not lawsuits filed," Walczak said.

Using federal funds, the Department of State spent months training local elections officials on the changes, spokesman Ron Ruman said. But the department will wait for a high court ruling before deciding its next step.

"We don't necessarily have a plan A or plan B," Ruman said last week, "because there are too many possibilities."

(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer


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