It may be significant, or it may mean little at this early juncture. Nevertheless, it was good to see the Supreme Court in its first official move since conservative Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch arrived in April make a decision that favored the advancement of voting rights.
The court announced Monday that it would not review a lower court’s ruling that a North Carolina voting law discriminated against African Americans. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. explained that didn’t mean the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court ruling. But it does mean a majority thought it best not to review the lower court decision.
That matters because the North Carolina case was among those Gorsuch was expected to have an immediate impact by breaking last year’s tie when Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. wanted to review the three-judge Fourth Circuit Court’s decision, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan did not.
Gorsuch’s ascension didn’t immediately overturn the lower court in Virginia’s ruling that the North Carolina law “disproportionately affected African Americans.” Enacted in 2013 after the Supreme Court released states from some Voting Rights Act rules, the law required a photo ID to vote, ended voter registration on election days, restricted voting to assigned precints, and reduced early voting from 17 days to 10.
The Fourth Circuit said the measures collectively represented “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” The Justice Department and civil rights groups pointed out the law imposed voter ID without evidence of even a single case of in-person voter fraud in the state. Yet the law didn’t address absentee voting although there was ample evidence of fraud in that method, which is much more often used by whites.
The Republican-majority legislature requested data on which races used certain voting procedures before enacting the 2013 law. The lower court concluded legislators wanted to limit the success of Democratic candidates favored by blacks. For example, ending same-day registration hurt so-called “souls to polls” programs in which black churches bused parishioners, including any who needed to register, to the polls after services.
The addition of Gorsuch couldn’t clear up another issue for the Supreme Court: Who has standing to pursue the case? The Republican legislature won a decision in federal district court to keep the 2013 law intact, but the Fourth Circuit voided that ruling. Meanwhile, the Republican governor who wanted to keep the law intact, Pat McCrory, has been replaced by a Democrat, Roy Cooper, who wants it to die.
Roberts cited a “blizzard of filings” over who has authority to seek the court’s review in announcing it won’t hear the case. That’s a victory for voting rights, but how long will it last? With three of its members — Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer — already over the average retirement age for justices, 79, President Trump will get more chances to pack the court with his picks. A 7-2 conservative majority is not out of the question. What will happen to voting rights then?