With Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., cautioning lower courts and lawyers not to read much into it, the Supreme Court on Monday turned aside an attempt to revive one of the nation’s strictest sets of voting restrictions, including a photo ID requirement. A federal appeals court had struck down the 2013 North Carolina state law, ruling that the state legislature passed it with the specific intent to discriminate against black voters.
The appeal had become mired in a dispute among state officials over who among state officials could speak for North Carolina on whether or not to continue to defend the law in court.
The Justices’ denial of review was not an endorsement of the ruling last summer by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Chief Justice hinted strongly at the reasoning that led the court to act as it id, writing a separate opinion speaking only for himself.
He recounted in detail the dueling claims of state officials about whether the appeal should be kept alive or dismissed. And then Roberts finished by reminding all readers of the order that a simple denial of review by the Supreme Court “imports no expression of opinion [by the Justices] upon the merits of the case.”
Even so, the Fourth Circuit’s sweeping decision against one of the nation’s highest visibility vote restriction laws will remain on the books as a precedent, even without Supreme Court approval. And other courts ruling on cases involving claims of intentional race bias in new voting laws already have been relying on that precedent.
The Fourth Circuit had labeled the state law as “the most restrictive” such law “since the era or Jim Crow.”
Specifically, the nullified provisions include a photo ID requirement that eliminated the few kinds of IDs that black voters might have, two clauses that reduced or took away voting options heavily used by blacks – early voting before election day, including Sundays, and a right to register to vote on the same day of voting, a ban on counting votes that had been cast mistakenly in the wrong precinct, and a ban on pre-registration to vote before an individual reached voting age, 18.
Last summer, the Supreme Court had split 4-to-4 when Republican officials of the state sought to go ahead with enforcing the restrictions while they pursued their appeal to the Justices. (At the time, the court had only eight Justices, before the recent arrival of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.)
The case had not yet been acted upon by the Justices when, after a new Democratic governor was elected last November, new state officials asked the court to dismiss the appeal filed by their predecessors. Ultimately, when acting on Monday to dispose of the case, the court did not dismiss it, but simply denied review of the appeal. There was no sign that any of the Justices had failed to participate in this action.
The appeal that has now been denied had sought to raise major issues under the Constitution and under the federal Voting Rights Act. Other cases raising those or similar issues are now working their way toward the court in lower court proceedings.