The U.S. Supreme Court put the final nail in the coffin of North Carolina's strict voter-identification law on Monday, rejecting a Republican bid to revive the measure struck down by a lower court for intentionally aiming to suppress black voter turnout.
The justices left in place a July 2016 ruling by the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that voided the law passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Republican governor.
The appeals court found that the North Carolina law's provisions "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision" and "impose cures for problems that did not exist," concluding that the Republican-led legislature enacted the measure "with discriminatory intent."
The justices' decision to reject the appeal sets no legal precedent and does not necessarily mean the conservative-leaning court would not endorse such laws in future. Nevertheless, civil rights groups hailed it as a significant victory.
"We are grateful that the Supreme Court has decided to allow the 4th Circuit’s ruling to stand, confirming that discrimination has no place in our democracy and elections. This ruling sends a strong message that lawmakers in North Carolina should stop enacting laws that discriminate based on race," said Allison Riggs, senior staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the groups that challenged the law.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a two-page statement indicating the move not to hear the case should not be interpreted as saying anything about the merits of the law, noting that one reason for not hearing it was a dispute over who represented the state.
The state's new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, and its Democratic attorney general, Josh Stein, had told the justices they wanted to drop the state's appeal of the 4th Circuit ruling. But the Republican-led state legislature said it should be able to intervene in the case to defend the law. The appeal was filed by Cooper's predecessor, Republican Pat McCrory, before the Democrat took office in January.
'BLIZZARD OF FILINGS'
Roberts in his statement cited a "blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this court under North Carolina law." Roberts noted that a refusal to hear an appeal says nothing about how the court views the merits of a particular legal issue.
The North Carolina law required that certain forms of government-issued photo identification cards be presented by voters, allowing for example driver's licenses, passports and military identification cards but not public assistance cards used disproportionately by minorities in North Carolina. Other provisions included cutting early voting days and ending same-day voter registration.
The law, one of a number of similar statutes passed by Republican-controlled states, was opposed by civil rights groups, including the state chapter of the NAACP, as well as Democrats.
Republicans have said the laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. Democrats have said the laws are voter suppression measures intended to make it harder for groups that tend to back Democratic candidates, including black and Hispanic voters, to cast ballots.
Cooper welcomed the court's decision not to hear the case.
"Today's announcement is good news for North Carolina voters. We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder," the governor said in a statement.
The NAACP and individual voters sued to block the law, arguing it disproportionately burdened black and Hispanic voters, who are more likely than white voters to lack acceptable forms of identification.
North Carolina passed the law weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June 2013 to eliminate a requirement that states with a history of discrimination receive federal approval before changing election laws.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)