(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court dealt an unexpected setback to the voter-identification movement, refusing to reinstate North Carolina ballot restrictions that a lower court said target blacks “with almost surgical precision.”
Turning away the appeal pressed by state Republican leaders, the justices left intact a ruling that said the provisions were racially discriminatory in violation of federal voting-rights law. In addition to requiring people to show a photo ID, the North Carolina law reduced the number of early voting days and eliminated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.
In a statement that accompanied the court’s order Monday, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed to uncertainty over who was authorized to file an appeal on behalf of the politically divided state. He said the court had received a "blizzard of filings" on that issue.
Roberts, however, also stressed that the justices weren’t deciding that the lower court was right to strike down the North Carolina requirements. The rejection of an appeal "imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case," he wrote, quoting from a 1923 Supreme Court opinion.
The rebuff was a surprise because Roberts and three other conservative justices previously tried to revive the measure before the 2016 election. That effort failed because it was an emergency request that required five votes, but the court could have accepted the latest appeal with only four votes.
Critics of voting-rights laws expressed relief. “An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing," said Dale Ho, who runs the voting-rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that challenged the law.
"This is a big deal and VERY good news for the voting-rights community," tweeted Rick Hasen, an election-law expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine. "Dodging a bullet."
The appeal was filed by private lawyers in December, when Republican Pat McCrory was governor. McCrory had just lost the November election, and the man who defeated him -- Democrat Roy Cooper -- tried to withdraw the appeal once he took office in January. The lawyers pressing the appeal, however, told the justices that they represented the Republican-controlled General Assembly, not the governor.
North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, accused Cooper and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein of flouting the will of the state’s voters.
“All North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the common-sense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote,” Berger and Moore said in a statement.
Stein called the rebuff a victory for the right to vote.
"The right to vote is our most fundamental right," Stein said on Facebook. "It’s how we hold government and our elected officials accountable."
The rebuff is a blow to Republicans in what is traditionally a political swing state.
“It is disappointing that the Supreme Court did not accept for review an obviously wrong decision by a 4th Circuit panel that doesn’t follow the court’s own precedent and other decisions on voter ID by other federal courts," said Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The Obama administration and civil rights groups challenged the North Carolina law. A three-judge panel said the provisions violated the Constitution’s equal-protection guarantee and the Voting Rights Act. A federal trial judge had upheld the law.
The North Carolina law was enacted in 2013, a month after the Supreme Court struck down a central part of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that opened the polls to millions of black Americans.
The Supreme Court ruling effectively eliminated the requirement that parts of 15 states with histories of discrimination, including North Carolina, get federal approval before changing their voting rules. North Carolina was among the first states to adopt voting changes after the decision.
Voting restrictions met mixed fates in the run-up to the last year’s election, with federal courts allowing some state limits but not others. Federal appeals courts invalidated or softened voter-ID laws in Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
The case is North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, 16-833.