The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a challenge to Wisconsin’s 2011 law requiring voters to present photo identification, but the state’s attorney general said the law will not be in effect for next month’s elections in the state.
The justices’ decision not to review a federal appeals court ruling that upheld the law was a victory for Gov. Scott Walker (R), who supported and signed the law, and perhaps for other states that have tightened voting procedures to require additional identification. More challenges to specific state laws are in the pipeline.
The Supreme Court last year stayed the Wisconsin law from affecting November’s midterm elections. At the time, civil rights groups told the court that it was too close to the elections to be sure that everyone who lacked the required photo ID would get one in time to vote.
After Monday’s action, in which the justices without comment declined to review the law, state Attorney General Brad Schimel (R) said Wisconsin would voluntarily forgo the requirements for the upcoming election.
“Absentee ballots are already in the hands of voters, therefore, the law cannot be implemented for the April 7 election,” Schimel said in a statement. “The Voter ID law will be in place for future elections — this decision is final.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that states may require voters to present photo identification before casting ballots, opening the way for wider adoption of measures that Republicans say combat fraud and Democrats say discourage voting among minorities, the elderly and the poor.
A number of Republican-led states have passed tighter voting requirements, and that has led to a rash of litigation in the lower courts.
In a series of emergency rulings just before the last election, the Supreme Court allowed a Texas law to take effect, despite a lower court’s ruling that it was based on intentional discrimination; upheld a change in Ohio law that shortened the period for early voting; and allowed North Carolina to go through with two changes that were being challenged: doing away with same-day registration and voting, and refusing to count ballots mistakenly cast in the wrong precinct.
Those decisions seemed to be based less on the merits of the cases than on the justices’ unwillingness to upset the procedures for the elections at the last minute.
The Wisconsin law has been controversial since its passage and has been used only in a February 2012 primary. A federal judge in Milwaukee agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights groups that the law is unconstitutional. But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago reversed that decision.
Richard Hasen, a voting-law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school who opposes voter-ID laws, wrote on his blog that the court’s decision to pass up the Wisconsin appeal might be a “blessing in disguise.”
Hasen said that from the perspective of those who oppose such laws, the Texas case might be more promising for court review. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found that there was evidence that law was written to discriminate.
When the Supreme Court turned down a request to stay the Texas law and allowed it to be implemented for November’s elections, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a stern dissent.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections . . . is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is reviewing Ramos’s decision.
The justices on Monday also declined to consider the case of a Texas inmate who has been on death row for three decades. As a result, the court lifted a stay that has been in place since last month.
Lester Bower, 67, was convicted of killing four men in an aircraft hangar in 1983. He shot one man while trying to steal an ultralight plane this man was trying to sell, then shot the other three when they unexpectedly arrived, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He has maintained his innocence.
Bower’s long tenure on death row was among the reasons his attorneys argued he should be eligible for a stay. They say his execution has been scheduled six times since he arrived on death row, and he has come within hours of heading to the death chamber before.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the court should have considered Bower’s appeal. He said that when Bower was convicted, the jury helping decide his sentence did not properly consider potentially mitigating evidence. Bower was entitled to another sentencing hearing, Breyer said.
“I recognize that we do not often intervene only to correct a case-specific legal error,” Breyer wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “But the error here is glaring, and its consequence may well be death.”
However, it is unclear when Bower may face the death chamber. Texas has half a dozen executions scheduled over the next three months and only one dose of its lethal-injection drug left. If the state carries out its scheduled execution of Kent Sprouse on April 9, it will have no drugs left and five other executions on the calendar. States across the country are facing a shortage of lethal-injection drugs, which has fragmented the way executions are carried out nationwide.