Understanding the Supreme Court's Voter ID Decision

Today's much anticipated decision is a significant win for those who support stricter voter identification laws, even if they support such laws for partisan purposes.
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Today's much anticipated decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board is a significant win for those who support stricter voter identification laws, even if they support such laws for partisan purposes. It will encourage further litigation, because it relegates challenges to laws imposing onerous burdens on a small group of voters to "as applied" challenges, but those challenges will be difficult to win. The lack of a majority opinion, moreover, injects some uncertainty into the appropriate standard for reviewing other challenges to onerous election laws. The Court's specific split in this case will blunt charges that this is a politicized 5-4 decision---and it is significant that the Court, once again, has failed to cite to its opinion in Bush v. Gore. More on each of these points below. [Disclosure: I filed this pro bono amicus brief on my own behalf supporting the challengers to the law in this case.]

1. The Controlling Standard from Justice Stevens' Opinion. The Court split into three camps on the constitutionality of Indiana's voter identification law (four camps if you count the nuanced differences between Justice Souter's and Justice Breyer's dissenting opinions). The controlling opinion is that of Justice Stevens, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy. In a nutshell, the approach boils down to this: under the balancing approach of earlier cases (which the opinion says comes from cases such as Anderson and Burdick), a state needs to come forward with merely plausible non-discriminatory interests to justify an election law. The evidence need not be strong. Indeed, though Justice Stevens says that there is evidence of fraud to justify a voter identification requirement, the actual evidence he cites in the footnotes is incredibly thin---either reaching back to 1868 (footnote 11) or a single case of impersonation voter fraud found in a recent gubernatorial election in Washington state (fn. 12). Moreover, Justice Stevens says an interest in preserving voter confidence can justify such laws as well, ignoring undisputed evidence such laws are not at all likely to instill voter confidence (and could in fact do the opposite). Nor does it matter if the motivation in passing the law is completely partisan. The law is to be upheld unless "such considerations had provided the only justification for a photo identification requirement." So those with partisan motive need only find a nonpartisan pretext for such laws. Once the state has posited its neutral reasons for such a law, the law is to be upheld if it doesn't impose serious burdens on most voters. For those voters who do face serious burdens, they must bring an "as applied" challenge where they present specific evidence applied to them as to why the law is onerous. This channelling of election law cases into as applied challenges--part of a recent trend of the Court--- is going to make it tough for a lot of plaintiffs who are burdened, and is in sharp contrast with the Court's approach in earlier cases, such as the Harper case striking down the poll tax for everyone, not just poor voters. The evidence in as-applied challenges must be specific and tested in litigation; as Justice Stevens says responding to Justice Souter's dissent: "Supposition based on extensive Internet research is not an adequate substitute for admissible evidence subject to cross-examination in constitutional adjudication."

2. The Wide Gap in the Other Opinions. Justice Scalia's opinion (joined by Justices Alito and Thomas) concurring in the judgment is uncharacteristically brief. It reads the applicable constitutional standard differently, one that simply gives carte blanche to most states to pass laws with any kind of neutral justification offered. It is unclear to me, despite the * footnote, whether Justice Scalia would today uphold a poll tax like that struck down by the Court in Harper. Certainly Justice Scalia seems to think that if a law doesn't burden most people, it should be upheld unless it imposes a "severe and overall" burden on the right to vote. Justice Souter's opinion in dissent is the one I would have hoped the Court would have written; rather than accepting the state's interests at face value, it probed to see if the evidence actually supported it. Because the state failed to do so, the Court should have struck down the law entirely, not relegated future challenges to "as applied" litigation. Justice Breyer, taking a somewhat more moderate approach to the state's interest, finds fault in the details of the Indiana plan---there is no justification, he says, for the more severe aspects of the plan.

3. The Split on the Court and the Legacy of Bush v. Gore. Certainly the potentially explosive nature of this litigation is blunted by the Court's interesting split in the case. This is not your typical 5-4 split with Justice Kennedy casting the deciding vote. The controlling opinion features three Justices across the spectrum of the Court; that's good news for those who worried about the effect of this decision on the Court's legitimacy in election law cases. Beyond that split, it is amazing to me how allergic all the Justices of the Court are to Bush v. Gore. One of the things I spent considerable time on in my amicus brief and in this recent Stanford Law Review article is the rise in partisan litigation in the courts in the wake of the 2000 Florida debacle and the politicization even of the Judiciary. Nary a word from any Justice on what their own handiwork may have caused in this country. The Stevens opinion response seems to be one of showing by example rather than addressing the issue directly. While that's to be commended, I am disappointed by how cursory that opinion was in its review of the state's interest in light of the highly partisan atmosphere of election administration, and I fear that, despite the Stevens-Kennedy-Roberts' opinion's best intentions, this opinion will be read as a green light for the enactment of more partisan election laws in an attempt to skew outcomes in close elections. It is a real disappointment from that perspective.

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