SCOTUS 4-4 tie works in favor of voting rights in North Carolina


The death of Justice Antonin Scalia continues to pay dividends.

The state of North Carolina, which enacted the “most discriminatory election law in the nation,” petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the ruling of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which last month struck down the state law.

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog reports, North Carolina comes up one vote short for stay in election law case:

maxwell_smartA closely divided Court today denied North Carolina’s request to allow the state to enforce three provisions of its controversial 2013 election law when voters go to the polls for this fall’s general elections. The state needed five of the eight Justices to agree to halt a lower court’s ruling that blocked the law, but it came up one short – illustrating the impact of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who likely would have joined the Court’s other conservative Justices in voting for the state.

The North Carolina legislature enacted the law in the wake of the Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down the federal formula used to determine which state and local governments must obtain advance approval for any changes to their voting rules. The law would require North Carolina voters to show a government-issued photo ID, reduce the number of days for early voting, and eliminate out-of-precinct voting, same-day voter registration, and preregistration for young voters.

A federal trial court upheld the law against claims that it was racially discriminatory. But in late July of this year, a federal appeals court barred the state from enforcing the law. The court of appeals rejected the state’s explanation that the law was intended to combat voter fraud and “promote public confidence in the election system.” Rather, the court of appeals concluded, the law “hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to” voting.

On August 15, North Carolina asked the Supreme Court to step in and allow the state to enforce three of the law’s provisions – the voter ID requirement, the reduction in early voting days, and preregistration for young voters – during the upcoming elections. Doing so, the state told the Justices, would stave off the “voter confusion” that might ensue if the state were not allowed to use the same procedures (including the voter ID requirement) that it used in the March 2016 elections. But the federal government and civil rights groups challenging the law countered that a ruling for the state would actually increase the likelihood of “mistake and confusion,” because the state had already made plans for the November election to go forward under the terms of the appeals court’s order blocking the law.

Today’s one-page order gave no explanation for the Court’s ruling. However, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito indicated that they would have granted the state’s request and allowed it to enforce the voter ID requirement and reduction in early voting; Justice Clarence Thomas would have granted the request in its entirety. Notably, on August 3 Justice Stephen Breyer joined his more conservative colleagues in voting to block a federal district court order that would have required a Virginia school board to allow a transgender student who identifies as a boy to use the boys’ bathroom when school resumes last week; Breyer indicated that he did so “as a courtesy.” Breyer did not do so today.

Election law attorney Rick Hasen makes a couple of excellent points at Election Lw Blog, Breaking: #SCOTUS 4-4 Tie in NC Voting Case Leaves Lower Court Ruling in Place and Shows Us Power of Appeals Courts Post-Scalia:

2. The fact that this petition got four votes should be very depressing to those who have been hoping that perhaps Justice Kennedy and the Chief Justice would have had a change of heart on voter id laws as Judge Posner and Justice Stevens have since the Crawford case. The petition was exceptionally weak because North Carolina waited 17 days to file it and then claimed an emergency. So even apart from the merits, this was a weak case. And on the merits, we have a finding that the state of North Carolina engaged in intentionally racially discriminatory conduct. Even that was not enough for the conservatives to justify the 4th Circuit’s decision, at least temporarily (though, to be fair, the 4th Circuit reversed the factual finding of the district court on discriminatory intent, and they may not buy it). If Kennedy and the Chief are going to be in play in future voting wars cases, this stay order does not give an inkling of that.

3. This also means that as these cases work their way up to the Supreme Court on the merits (there will be a case from Texas too, we’ve been promised, and more to come), there is very likely to be a 4-4 deadlock on the merits, meaning the Court won’t be able to do its work. It also means that how the Court handles not only voting rights but a whole host of issues depends on the outcome of the presidential election. The Supreme Court really matters.

Yes it does!