Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took pains to note that the high court’s decision did not reach the merits of the case, but Democrats, civil rights groups and minority groups celebrated the demise of the law.
It was one of numerous voting rights changes passed by Republican-led legislatures after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. That decision effectively removed federal oversight of states with a history of discrimination.
“This is a huge victory for voters and a massive blow to Republicans trying to restrict access to the ballot, especially in communities of color,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.
The 4th Circuit on July 29 agreed with allegations from the Justice Department and civil rights groups that North Carolina’s bill selectively chose voter-identification requirements, reduced the number of early-voting days and changed registration procedures in ways meant to harm African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party.
The appeals court did not allow the law to be used in the 2016 election, and voters replaced the state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, with Democrat Roy Cooper.
Cooper and the state’s new Democratic attorney general, Josh Stein, told the Supreme Court they did not want to appeal the lower court’s decision that the law violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
“We need to be making it easier to vote, not harder — and the court found this law sought to discriminate against African-American voters with ‘surgical precision,’ ” Cooper said in a statement after the Supreme Court acted. “I will continue to work to protect the right of every legal, registered North Carolinian to participate in our democratic process.”
As is its custom, the justices did not give a reason for declining to review the lower court’s decision. But in an accompanying statement, Roberts noted the particular circumstances of the appeal, in which the Republican legislative leadership attempted to continue the appeal and the Democratic governor and attorney general sought to abandon it.
"Given the blizzard of filings over who is and who is not authorized to seek review in this Court under North Carolina law, 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,' " Roberts wrote.
Last summer, Roberts and the court’s other conservatives — Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — said they would have allowed the law to be used in the 2016 elections while the appeals continued.
The Supreme Court has upheld a version of voter-ID laws. But the issue seems likely to return to the high court, perhaps in high-profile challenges to laws in Texas and Wisconsin.
The battle against the North Carolina law, considered one of the nation’s most far-reaching, consumed years of litigation by the Obama administration and a wide coalition of civil rights organizations.
“An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, the lead organizational plaintiff in the case, said, “Today we experience a victory for justice that is unimaginably important for African Americans, Latinos, all North Carolinians, and the nation.”
The state legislature’s top Republicans, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a statement that they would enact a new voter-ID law.
“It is unconscionable that Roy Cooper and Josh Stein — who ignored state law and flouted their conflicts of interest to kill voter ID in North Carolina — have now caused the vast majority of voters who support voter ID to be denied their day in court,” Moore and Berger said in a statement. “In light of Chief Justice Roberts’ statement that the ruling was not based on the merits of voter ID, all North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the commonsense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote.”
The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case about whether North Carolina’s congressional districts were racially gerrymandered, as a lower court found. And federal judges have also said the state must redraw some state legislative districts for the same reason. That decision is being appealed.
In the voting rights case, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the 4th District panel in July that the state law’s provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
“Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation,” she wrote.
Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.