By Jason Stein and Patrick Marley

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to Wisconsin's voter identification law, restoring the measure it had dramatically blocked ahead of last November's election but not in time for the April 7 ballot.

The decision by the justices means that the state will eventually require voters to show identification in all elections. But the court's action -- made without comment -- means the photo ID requirement will not be in place for the spring election, said Kevin Kennedy, the state's chief elections officer.

"Realistically, you could not implement this" in time for the April 7 election, said Kennedy, the director of the state's Government Accountability Board.

The nation's highest court froze the state law last fall after critics pointed out that absentee ballots had been mailed out without explanation of the ID requirement. Monday's decision came after absentee ballots had been mailed and in-person early voting had begun for the April 7 election between Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and her challenger, Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley.

It's likely the last decision of substance in a legal battle that has lasted for nearly four years.

"Absentee ballots are already in the hands of voters, therefore, the law cannot be implemented for the April 7 election. The voter ID law will be in place for future elections -- this decision is final," GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement.

Those who brought the challenge filed an emergency request on Monday with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago seeking a court order preventing the voter ID requirement from going into effect until after the April 7 election. Kennedy said the state would not oppose that effort.

There will likely be special elections later in 2015 with the ID requirement in place, Kennedy said. The first statewide election with the requirement will be the next spring primary, in February 2016.

Opponents of the voter ID law decried the decision.

"The values enshrined in our Constitution, and protected in the Voting Rights Act, are undermined when burdensome laws like photo ID requirements make the ballot box inaccessible to any eligible voters," said a statement from Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which assisted with the litigation. "Our elections should always be free, fair and accessible to all citizens. Under Wisconsin's restrictive photo ID law, they simply are not."

Wisconsin was one of four states in which a dispute over voting rules reached the U.S. Supreme Court last fall. The other states were North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. Of the four states, only Wisconsin's rules were temporarily blocked.

Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans approved Wisconsin's photo ID law in 2011, but it was quickly blocked by a series of court decisions in four lawsuits in state and federal court.

Walker campaign issue

The Republican governor, who is now ramping up a presidential campaign, has frequently cited the voter ID law as an accomplishment and brought it up in speeches he gave last week on a swing through the early primary state of South Carolina.

"This is great news for Wisconsin voters," Walker said in a Monday statement. "As we've said, this is a common sense reform that protects the integrity of our voting process, making it easy to vote and hard to cheat."

In August, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the law with minor adjustments that made it easier for people to get ID cards without having to pay along the way. The next month, a panel of 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago reinstated the law for the fall election -- a ruling that surprised both supporters and opponents of the voter ID law.

The full 10-member appeals court split 5-5 on the issue, leaving the panel's decision in place.

But then opponents of the law made an emergency appeal, arguing that there wasn't enough time both to protect voters and implement the law, and the U.S. Supreme Court put the measure on hold temporarily. That raised the question of whether a majority of justices on the high court held other reservations about the measure.

That issue appeared put to rest Monday when the court declined to take up a substantive appeal by opponents of the law.

Wisconsin's voter ID measure was in place for one election -- a low turnout primary in February 2012 -- before it was blocked by the court orders in the four cases, two in state court and two in federal court.

"It's a great day in Wisconsin; voter ID will finally be the law of the land," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said Monday in a statement. "The common sense law will help ensure honest and fair elections in our state, and I look forward to the full implementation of voter ID in the coming months."

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which challenged the law in one of the state lawsuits, disagreed.

"The problem with our elections is that not enough people vote in them. The last thing we need is laws that erect barriers for people who have been good voters for decades," the league's executive director, Andrea Kaminski, said in a statement.

Voters who do not have photo IDs that can be used for voting can get them for free from the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

In the state cases, the Wisconsin Supreme Court last year upheld the voter ID law by 4-3 in one case and 5-2 in another.

Bradley was in the minority in both those cases, and Daley has highlighted her rulings against voter ID as a reason he should replace her in the April 7 election. In a statement Monday, Daley said Bradley "remains the leader of the shrinking chorus of dissenters who refuse to join the Supreme Court, state legislators and public who recognize the need for this common sense election security measure."

Bradley had no comment on the matter, according to her campaign.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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