HARRISBURG, Pa. — Strategies will shift as the first court battle over Pennsylvania's new law requiring voters to show valid photo identification heads to the state Supreme Court, while other legal hurdles could surface and political campaigns lumber toward the November election.
The law's Republican backers and, they say, the integrity of the Nov. 6 presidential election were the winners of Wednesday's decision by a state appellate judge to reject an injunction that would have halted the law from taking effect in November, as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
About a dozen rights groups and registered voters filed an appeal Thursday. Democrats say the law will trample the right to vote for countless people in an echo of the now-unconstitutional poll taxes and literacy tests once designed to discriminate against poor and minority voters.
The GOP-penned law, signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in March and opposed by every Democratic lawmaker, has ignited a furious debate over voting rights in Pennsylvania, which is poised to play a starring role in deciding the presidential contest.
Lawyers are asking the state's highest court for a speedy review of the appeal, requesting that oral arguments be scheduled during the court's session in Philadelphia the week of Sept. 10.
At the state Supreme Court, votes by four justices would be needed to overturn Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson's ruling. The high court is currently split between three Republicans and three Democrats following the recent suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican who is fighting criminal corruption charges.
A key focus on appeal is likely to be Simpson's decision to give strong deference to the government, rather than put a heavier legal burden on it to justify a law that opponents say infringes on a constitutional right.
"I don't know of any other state court that has ruled on photo ID that has applied such a low standard, that has protected the right to vote so little," said Penda Hair, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helped challenge the law.
In his 70-page opinion, Simpson said the federal courts and most state courts give the same kind of deference to the government when considering voter identification cases. But lawyers for the plaintiffs suggest that Pennsylvania's state constitution goes further than many of those state constitutions in extending protections to voting rights.
Simpson, a Republican, didn't rule on the full merits of the case, only whether to grant a preliminary injunction stopping it from taking effect. But he rejected the suit's claim that the law is unconstitutional and ruled that the challenge did not meet the stiff requirements to win an injunction.
Democrats say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to help the Republican presidential challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, beat President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Republicans, who for years have harbored suspicions of ballot-box stuffing in the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, say the law is a commonsense measure.
Republicans lauded Simpson's decision, while Democrats blasted it, and both parties sent out fundraising appeals spinning off Simpson's decision. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign had a lower-profile response, saying it would continue its efforts to register voters and educate them about the law, and it urged the state to follow through on its plan to make available free photo IDs to any registered voter who needs one.
State elections officials have until the middle of next week to supply information to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is looking at Pennsylvania's law and has moved to block voter ID laws in other states. Another lawsuit is pending from the state's second-most populous county, Allegheny County.