By Michael Doyle
Opponents of strict voter ID laws won a closely watched, but perhaps temporary, victory Monday, as the Supreme Court declined to revive a 4-year-old North Carolina measure.
Rejecting an unusual plea from the North Carolina General Assembly, the court said it would not hear the North Carolina case in the term that will start in October.
It leaves intact an appellate court ruling striking down the North Carolina law, though it also leaves unsettled some crucial issues that are likely to come back in another case and on another day.
"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,'" Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote.
Newly reinforced by rookie Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court's five-member conservative majority is seen by some as potentially sympathetic to state voting-related laws passed in recent years by Republican-controlled legislatures.
Perhaps hinting at his own sympathies, Roberts noted Monday that a trial judge who had upheld the law did so in "a nearly 500-page opinion."
For now, the decision is a victory for opponents of the North Carolina law. More broadly, the earlier decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the law remains as precedent binding on Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, while its reasoning might continue to influence other courts, as well.
"An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project.
The chapter was, at the very least, an unusual one, as the Republican-controlled General Assembly had tried to revive an appeal dropped by the two original combatants.
The Supreme Court considered the North Carolina case at its private conference last Thursday. At least four of the court's nine justices must agree for a case to be added to the oral argument docket.
As is customary, the court did not reveal any vote details from the conference.
The fizzling out announced Monday marked an anti-climactic end to what had once appeared as political high drama. At its peak, the case promised a collision course between vigorously warring parties.
It began as a challenge to multiple elements of North Carolina's 2013 law, including a photo-ID requirement for voters, a reduction in early voting and the elimination of same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration for 16-year-olds.
Following two trials, a federal judge issued a lengthy opinion finding those changes had neither discriminatory effect nor intent. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge, observing that North Carolina lawmakers had enacted the law against the backdrop of the state's "sordid history" of official racial discrimination "dating back well over a century."
"The only clear factor linking these various 'reforms' (was) their impact on African-American voters," a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit said in its decision last July.
Then-Gov. Pat McCrory sought Supreme Court review of the 4th Circuit's decision, but in February newly installed Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and state Attorney General Josh Stein asked the court to drop the case. This, in turn, prompted the North Carolina General Assembly to try to intervene.
"North Carolina law is plain that the General Assembly has the authority to litigate this case even if the state itself, represented by General Stein, chooses not to," attorney S. Kyle Duncan wrote, in what proved to be a futile effort.
Stein countered in a legal brief that "the General Assembly is not, and has never purported to be, a named party in this case."
Noting that the case "raises the question of what entity properly speaks for the state of North Carolina," attorneys who had originally challenged the state's 2013 law likewise urged the Supreme Court to steer clear.
"The General Assembly seeks to reverse course at the eleventh hour," the attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups wrote in a brief, adding, "The court should not reward these tactics and prolong a case where every party has decided not to pursue an appeal."
(c)2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau