PA High Court Vacates Commonwealth Court Ruling on Voter ID

Sep 18, 2012

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has sent back to Commonwealth Court a request for an injunction against the state's Voter ID law.  In doing so, the justices vacated the decision by Commonwealth Court that upheld the law that plaintiffs claimed would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters who would have difficulty getting the proper photo identification to be presented at polling places.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday on an appeal of Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson's August 15 decision not to grant an injunction that would have stopped implementation of the law.   Supporters of the law said it's necessary to protect the integrity of the election process but opponents argued that it would make it more difficult for the elderly, minorities, the poor and college students to cast ballots.

The high court's ruling stated that there is a debate over the number of affected voters.  "Nevertheless, there is little disagreement with Appellants’ observation that the population involved includes members of some of the most vulnerable segments of our society." 

The high court's decision went on to say that  Commonwealth Court made a "predictive judgment"  that the commonwealth’s efforts to educate the voting public combined with remedial efforts to make the issuance of PennDOT identification cards easier would be sufficient to forestall the possibility of disenfranchisement.   The justices said that in oral arguments that attorneys for the appellants acknowledged that "given reasonable voter education efforts, reasonably available means for procuring identification, and reasonable time allowed for implementation, the Appellants apparently would accept that the State may require the presentation of an identification card as a precondition to casting a ballot." 

The high court's action pleased the plaintiffs.  "I think it’s important that the Supreme Court was saying that the court cannot now just rely on government officials assurences, that’s not enough, and the court also said that what the Commonwealth Court needs to focus on is whether or not voters are being disenfranchised," said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.

The main issue remains in making the identification cards available to registered voters.

The ruling continued.  "In this regard, however, we agree with Appellants’ essential position that if a statute violates constitutional norms in the short term, a facial challenge may be sustainable even though the statute might validly be enforced at some time in the future. Indeed, the most judicious remedy, in such a circumstance, is the entry of a preliminary injunction, which may moot further controversy as the constitutional impediments dissipate."

"Overall, we are confronted with an ambitious effort on the part of the General Assembly to bring the new identification procedure into effect within a relatively short timeframe and an implementation process which has by no means been seamless in light of the serious operational constraints faced by the executive branch. Given this state of affairs, we are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials, even though we have no doubt they are proceeding in good faith."

So the high court returned the case to Commonwealth Court "to make a present assessment of the actual availability of the alternate identification cards on a developed record in light of the experience since the time the cards became available."

Plaintiff attorney David Gersch said he thinks the state will have a difficult time demonstrating the cards are available.  "It’s a very high standard the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has imposed and correctly so, given how few days are remaining before the election.” 

The justices gave Commonwealth Court until October 2 to file its supplemental opinion and said any further appeals would be administered on an expedited basis.