The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday handed down a major ruling in favor of Republicans in North Carolina.
GOP lawmakers there sought to defend a voter ID law the legislature passed but the Democratic state attorney general did not want to defend, and a majority of justices agreed they should be able to do so.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only one to dissent in the 8-1 ruling, which has been closely watched given November’s crucial midterm elections are just months away.
“At the heart of this lawsuit lies a challenge to the constitutionality of a North Carolina election law. But the merits of that dispute are not before us, only an antecedent question of civil procedure: Are two leaders of North Carolina’s state legislature entitled to participate in the case under the terms of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the opinion.
“Within wide constitutional bounds, States are free to structure themselves as they wish. Often, they choose to conduct their affairs through a variety of branches, agencies, and elected and appointed officials. These constituent pieces sometimes work together to achieve shared goals; other times they reach very different judgments about important policy questions and act accordingly,” the opinion continued.
“This diffusion of governmental powers within and across institutions may be an everyday feature of American life. But it can also pose its difficulties when a State’s laws or policies are challenged in federal court,” he added.
Republican lawmakers argued in lower courts that the state’s Democratic Attorney General John Stein was not properly defending the law from legal challenges brought by the NAACP and other groups who claim it violates the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
Last September, a three-judge panel in North Carolina blocked the state’s photo voter ID law, ruling that it “was motivated at least in part by an unconstitutional intent to target African-American voters.”
The law, S.B. 824, requires voters to present a photo ID in order to vote.
In a , two Wake County Superior Court judges held that the law violates the state’s constitution “because it was adopted with a discriminatory purpose.”
“North Carolina’s Voter ID law was enacted with the unconstitutional intent to discriminate against African American voters,” the majority wrote.
The two judges cited a 2015 study by Sen. Van Duyn that found at least 5.9% of registered voters lacked identification and that 9.6% of black voters “lacked acceptable ID” compared to just 4.5% of registered white voters under a previous election bill.
The ruling also claimed that the law was discriminatory because “since a greater percentage of black voters live in poverty, black voters face greater hurdles to acquiring photo ID.”
But Judge Nathaniel Poovey dissented, claiming “not one scintilla of evidence was introduced during this trial that any legislator acted with racially discriminatory intent.”
Poovey wrote that plaintiffs relied on the “past history of other lawmakers and used an extremely broad brush to paint the 2018 General Assembly with the same toxic paint. The majority opinion, in this case, attempts to weave together the speculations and conjectures that Plaintiffs put forward as circumstantial evidence of discriminatory intent behind Session Law 2018-144.”
The judge went on to not that plaintiffs “failed to meet their initial burden” to prove the legislature “acted with a racially discriminatory intent.”