Judicial Dissonance

In a pair of crucial voter ID rulings, the court is silent
National Constitution Center

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed North Carolina to hold elections Nov. 4 under the full Voter Information Verification Act (voter ID). The SCOTUS decision overturned a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from Oct. 1 that struck down two key provisions of the law: bans on same-day voter registration and the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked Wisconsin from enforcing its own voter ID law.

I really wish I or anyone else could explain how the SCOTUS could vote to uphold segments of North Carolina’s voter ID law on one day and block Wisconsin from implementing its law the next.

After the Appeals Court ruling on the North Carolina law, I wrote this: “I trust that the Supreme Court will issue its own rejection of this argument, and that it will be as convoluted and intellectually dishonest as the law.” Got that one half-right. The court rejected it, all right, but its argument was neither convoluted nor intellectually dishonest. That’s because it doesn’t exist. Neither does the court’s justification for staying the enforcement of the Wisconsin law. The majority in both cases offered no explanation for the rulings.

So this is a fine mess—the ultimate arbiters of American democracy issuing contradictory rulings on the matter most essential to democracy and not bothering to explain what they were thinking. (Most of them, anyway. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented in the North Carolina decision and actually explained themselves.) For help in sorting this out, I emailed Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog, best known for getting the Affordable Care Act ruling in 2012 right when everyone else engaged in intimate relations with the canine.

Denniston has covered the Supreme Court for more than 50 years. Here, within a few minutes, is what he emailed back:

“My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that the Wisconsin requirement had never been in effect, and no steps had been taken to implement it for this year's election, so the Court considered it too disruptive to have it enforced this time. That was not the case in North Carolina, as I understand the difference.”

If this analysis is correct—and it’s the only coherent one I know of—that’s a lovely addendum to the fine mess, and a strong message to states who want to keep the wrong people from voting: Erect the barricades quickly, and the highest court in the land will keep your law in place because blocking it would be “disruptive.” I would pay to watch John Roberts explain that to people in North Carolina who mistakenly thought they had the right, as opposed to the privilege, to vote.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest