WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court denied a request Wednesday from North Carolina to allow provisions of its controversial voting rights law to go back into effect.
In a 4-4 split, justices left undisturbed a lower court opinion that struck down the law.
The Supreme Court’s order means provisions of the law — concerning a tightening in voter ID requirements, cutbacks on early voting and the preregistration of 16-year-olds — will remain off the books for November’s election.
The court’s order is a major victory for challengers to the law, including civil rights groups and the Department of Justice, which argued that it had a disparate impact on minority voters. In July, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that provisions of the law targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Hillary Clinton tweeted that the ruling was “great news.” “Let’s make voting easier so every voice in our democracy can be heard,” she wrote.
North Carolina was seeking to freeze the lower court opinion pending appeal. In court papers, lawyers for the state argued that the appellate decision would cause confusion “mere months” before a general election.
Gov. Pat McCrory issued a statement after the Supreme Court’s order calling the law a “common-sense voter ID law.”
“North Carolina has been denied basic voting rights already granted to more than 30 other states to protect the integrity of one person, one vote,” he said.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Samuel Alito indicated they would grant the stay in part; Justice Clarence Thomas said he would grant the stay in its entirety. It would have taken five justices to grant the stay.
The state’s lead lawyer, Paul Clement, said in briefs filed with the Supreme Court that the appeals court’s decision was “extraordinary” and argued, for example, that the appeals court “prohibited North Carolina from enforcing a voter ID law that is actually more sensitive to disparate impact concerns than those in force in many of its sister states.”
Citing the approaching date of the election, Clement asked the court only to reinstate three provisions of the law before the next election. The law requires voters to present any of eight different forms of identification. It reduced early voting from a 17-day period to 10 days and it eliminated the state’s “preregistration” practice, which allowed 16-year-olds to preregister even if they would not be eligible to vote in the next election.
In court briefs, challengers to the law had argued that the appeals court opinion would not disturb the election because the state had already taken steps to implement the decision including an online posting detailing the appeals court decision and reiterating that no photo ID would be required in the election.
The groups and the Obama administration said the lower court opinion had been carefully crafted, and urged the Supreme Court to leave it undisturbed for now.
“Once an electoral law has been found to be racially discriminatory, and injunctive relief has been found to be necessary to remedy that discrimination, the normal rule is that the operation of the law must be suspended,” wrote acting Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn.
Marc Elias, general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, called the ruling Wednesday a “big win” for voters.
The court’s 4-4 divide in the order could signal that it might also deadlock in other voting rights cases currently percolating in the lower courts and give ammunition to those asking Senate Republicans to hold hearings for a ninth justice.