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Supreme Court Strikes Down Arizona’s Proof-of-Citizenship Voter Requirement

June 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
It is unconstitutional to make voters prove their U.S. citizenship to be able to register to vote. The Supreme Court made that reversal to Arizona law in a 7-2 decision. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal breaks down the details of that ruling with Judy Woodruff.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision today striking down Arizona’s law that required people to show proof of citizenship when they registered to vote in federal elections. The ruling affects several states with similar laws, and will block others from adding requirements to the voter registration process.

The court found a state law cannot trump the 1993 voter — Motor Voter law, which streamlines election sign-ups through a national form system.

With us, as always, is Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Hello, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us a little more about the case that the justices were asked to decide.

MARCIA COYLE: OK. All right.

The election clause in the federal Constitution, it gives states the responsibility to set the time, place and manner of federal elections. But it also gives Congress the power to alter those regulations. As you said, in 1993, Congress enacted the Motor Voter law. And that created a simple unified form to register to vote.

In 2004, Arizona enacted Proposition 200, and that required state voting officials to reject any registration form that didn’t include concrete evidence of citizenship, such as driver’s license, birth certificate. The issue before the court was whether that requirement conflicted with the federal form, which only requires the applicant to attest, sign that the person is a citizen, under penalty of perjury.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did the justices do? What did they say?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Scalia wrote for the majority. And as he was during oral arguments, he was very skeptical of Arizona’s argument that, under the federal law, which requires states to accept and use the federal form, the terms accept and use means only to willingly receive the form and use it as part of the state’s registration process.

He said this was a mandate in the federal law for a specific purpose. And if Arizona and other states could tack on to the federal law different requirements, pretty soon, the federal law would no longer have a very simple and unified form.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they knocked down what Arizona has done, but there was also language in the ruling that gives some hope to states and maybe even Arizona about a pathway they can choose if they do want to tighten voting requirements.

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely, Judy. This is the second part of his opinion.

He said, well, Arizona, you can go back to the Federal Elections Assistance Commission, which oversees the federal form, and ask it to include a state-specific requirement like you have in Proposition 200. If the commission rejects your request, you can file a lawsuit and challenge that decision in federal court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is there — is there clarity here or how do you read it?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think it’s one of those two-sided decisions. He did provide a road map for the states if they want to add requirements onto voter registration forms.

On the other hand, he also spoke to the elections clause and the power that Congress has given here as being quite broad. I think ultimately what we’re going to see is states are going to try to add some state-specific requirements to the federal form.

Justice Alito wrote a dissent in which he said, basically, well, this is a remedy that is just not going to work, because right now there is no one on the Federal Elections Assistance Commission. It’s not functioning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marcia, this was a 7-2 decision, unusual split among the conservatives. You had Justice Scalia writing the opinion, a couple of other conservatives joining with him. But then you had, as you just said, Justice Alito and Justice Thomas dissenting.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I have always believed that the conservatives on the court, as well as the more liberal members on the court, are not monolithic blocs.

And the conservatives Justice Scalia and Justice Alito have differed on First Amendment cases. Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas are not clones. They also have differed on First Amendment and even some criminal law cases. So, while it is surprising to see it, it’s not unusual.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you write about this, in fact, in your book.

MARCIA COYLE: I do, “The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: By Marcia Coyle. But it would be so much easier if they did fit into some easy explanation.

MARCIA COYLE: It would certainly be easier for those of us who write and talk about the court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marcia, there are still some very high-profile cases the justices have been deciding on. We don’t know how they’re going to rule. What is the thinking about what’s taking so long?

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

They’re very difficult cases. The three that we’re all sort of watching closely involve affirmative action, the University of Texas case, voting rights, the challenge to the heart of the Voting Rights Act, and the two same-sex marriage cases.

The court traditionally wraps up a term in the last week in June, which would be next week, really. We have one decision day scheduled for this week on Thursday, next week, probably two, maybe three days for the court. If it does want to wrap up, who knows? We’re only told when a day is a decision day, but not what decisions are coming.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re on the edge of our seats.

Marcia Coyle, thanks.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Judy.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we will have live coverage of the Supreme Court’s end-of-term decisions as they arrive. And on the days opinions are issued, we will carry developments from inside the court from SCOTUSblog on our home page.