The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a long-pending North Carolina case that could have produced the biggest voting rights ruling since the justices four years ago invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At issue in the case, North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, was a Republican-backed law that imposed a swath of restrictions on voters — including a voter ID requirement, reduced early-voting hours, and a prohibition on registering to vote and casting a ballot on the same day.
The justices’ decision to not hear the dispute means, in effect, that all of these measures won’t be reinstated and can’t be enforced unless lawmakers pass a new law.
With support from the Obama administration, voting rights groups sued North Carolina, arguing that the 2013 law was enacted to disenfranchise black and Latino voters. A federal judge disagreed with those claims and upheld the voting changes in their entirety.
Last summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the judge’s ruling, holding that the state legislature had passed the law with discriminatory intent.
The restrictions harked back to the state’s Jim Crow past, the court said, and targeted racial minorities “with almost surgical precision.”
“We cannot ignore the recent evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” wrote Judge Diana Motz for the three-judge panel.
With the clock ticking before the November election, then-Gov. Pat McCrory (R) pleaded with the Supreme Court to allow the state to enforce the voting measures. By a 4-4 vote, the high court denied that request, although four justices would have allowed some of the provisions to go into effect before the election.
Newly elected Gov. Roy Cooper (D) announced in February that his administration would not pursue the appeal over the voting restrictions. Lawyers for the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly urged the Supreme Court to consider the case anyway, reasoning that the legislature and the state elections board — not the governor and his attorney general — are the real defendants in the case.
In a two-page statement explaining these developments, Chief Justice John Roberts — who wrote the 2013 decision that weakened the Voting Rights Act — explained that the public shouldn’t read into the court’s decision not to hear the case.
“Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law,” Roberts wrote, “it is important to recall our frequent admonition that [t]he denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case.”
Cooper nonetheless welcomed Monday’s development in the case.
“Today’s announcement is good news for North Carolina voters,” he said in a statement. “We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder.”
Lawyers for civil rights groups likewise lauded the justices’ decision not to review the 4th Circuit ruling, which could potentially send a warning to North Carolina lawmakers looking for ways to erect new voting barriers.
“We are grateful that the Supreme Court has decided to allow the Fourth Circuit’s ruling to stand, confirming that discrimination has no place in our democracy nor our elections,” Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said in a statement. “This ruling sends a strong message that lawmakers in North Carolina should stop enacting laws that discriminate based on race.”
Dale Ho, who leads the voting rights unit of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the court’s refusal to hear the North Carolina case means that the state’s voting law is now, in essence, dead.
“An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing,” Ho said.
The Department of Justice, which under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a more passive stance on voting rights, declined to comment on Monday’s news. As a party in the case, the prior administration had filed a brief with the Supreme Court siding with civil rights groups.