The 8-1 ruling does not address the legality of the law, but makes it easier for NC legislators to hire their own attorneys—even though the state attorney general’s office is already involved.
Republican leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly can defend a restrictive voter ID law in federal court if they feel the state attorney general is inadequately doing so, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
The ruling takes no side on the legality of the voter ID law, which has been the subject of several state and federal lawsuits, but it does mean that Republican leaders will have a much more direct role as that process plays out. The ruling was 8-1, with only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.
While the ruling does nothing to decide the ultimate issue of voter ID in North Carolina—which, research shows, reduced turnout among people of color—it is still important. Republican legislators have long argued that NC Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat and critic of voter ID laws, was not adequately defending the law in court. As the News and Observer points out, though Stein and his team will remain the lead lawyers in the case, the ruling allows Republican leaders to hire their own lawyers and lay out their own strategies. It also allows them to block any settlement in the case if they don’t like the terms.
Beyond empowering state lawmakers to intervene in federal litigation, Thursday’s ruling could also potentially muck up the timeliness of decisions being delivered. “It is difficult to overstate the burden the Court’s holding will foist on district courts,” Sotomayer writes in her dissent. “Each intervenor will be entitled to file its own brief concerning every motion and will be entitled to its own discovery. Even when state agents’ positions align, this multitude of parties will clog federal courts and delay the administration of justice.”
The decision, while relatively procedural, sets the course for a final ruling about the legality of discriminatory voter ID requirements.
The legal path so far has been complicated.
In 2018, North Carolinians overwhelmingly voted in favor of an amendment to the state constitution requiring a photo ID to vote in the state. But when the General Assembly passed a subsequent bill outlining the specifics of which forms of ID would be acceptable, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and other voting rights groups filed lawsuits accusing it of intentionally discriminating against Black voters by naming forms of ID they were less likely to have. A trial judge agreed with the voting rights groups and ruled that the law was unlawful. A federal appeals court reversed that decision, the voting groups appealed, and the law is still making its way up the ladder.
But the first courts to hear the case blocked the law from going into effect while it was being argued in the federal court system, so no ID is currently required to vote in North Carolina. Today’s ruling doesn’t change that.