Two huge cases challenging new voting restrictions will soon be heard by the federal courts of appeal. On May 24, the entire Fifth Circuit—the most conservative federal appeals court in the nation—will hear Veasey v. Abbott, Texas’s appeal from a district court ruling that struck down the state’s draconian voter identification law—which allows use of a gun permit, but not a government-issued employee or student photo identification card—as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. Last August, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit issued a unanimous ruling, written by G.W. Bush appointee Catharina Haynes, partially upholding the district court’s decision, and Texas asked the full court to hear the case. In its defense of the law, Texas is urging the court of appeals to create a “voter identification” exception to the Voting Rights Act, insisting that, if the Voting Rights Act is not read narrowly, the Act’s nationwide prohibition on voting discrimination is unconstitutional. On June 21, the Fourth Circuit will hear North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory, an expedited appeal from a recent 485-page district court ruling upholding an omnibus voter suppression law enacted by the North Carolina legislature in 2013, which imposed a restrictive voter identification requirement, while eliminating a host of voting reforms designed to increase political participation by racial minorities and others.
One, or even, both of these cases could reach the Supreme Court later this year. In 2014, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented from the Court’s refusal to block the Texas voter identification law for the 2014 election, stressing that the restrictive law “risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.” Last month, the Supreme Court once again refused to intervene, but allowed the plaintiffs to seek relief again if the Fifth Circuit did not rule or vacate the stay by July 20. Importantly, the Supreme Court’s unsigned order prevents the Fifth Circuit from simply running out the clock on the thousands of voters whose rights are at stake.