MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The Supreme Court issued a handful of opinions today, and we're going to hear about two of them. First, a decision striking down an Arizona law. The court ruled that states may not require prospective voters to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in national elections. A federal law allows people to register by mail. They use a form on which they swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens.
Arizona added to that, requiring a passport, birth certificate or other proof of citizenship in order to register. The court struck down Arizona's law by a vote of 7-to-2, as we hear from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Writing for the court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, requiring states to accept and use the simple federal form, replaced more complicated state forms like Arizona's. And the court said that if the state wanted to add requirements, it had to get permission from an Elections Assistance Commission set up under this federal law. If the state was unable to prevail at the commission level, the court said, it could appeal to the federal court.
The high court decision affirmed a ruling by a federal appeals court that included retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who, since her retirement, still sits occasionally as a visiting judge on lower courts. Today, she was in the Supreme Court chamber when the decision was announced. Dissenting from the ruling were Justice Clarence Thomas and the man who replaced O'Connor on the high court, Justice Samuel Alito.
The lead plaintiff in challenging the Arizona law was a school janitor named Jesus Gonzalez, who registered to vote - or tried to - on the day he became a U.S. citizen. His application was twice rejected by state officials, though the documents he submitted were among those the state listed as acceptable proof of citizenship.
Those challenging the Arizona law contend that these kinds of registration hoops were exactly what Congress sought to prevent when it enacted the 1993 federal law. Nina Perales, litigation vice president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, was elated by today's ruling.
NINA PERALES: What that means in real terms is that voters can register to vote using the federal postcard in Arizona just as they can in every other state in the U.S.
TOTENBERG: Voting rights expert Richard Hasen of the University of California is not so sure.
DR. RICHARD HASEN: At first glance, it looks like it's a victory for the federal government because Arizona is told that it has to accept this federal form for voter registration. But buried in the opinion are all kinds of potential arguments that states could make down the line so that they will not have to follow federal mandates on elections.
TOTENBERG: Language that is very friendly to the concept of states' rights. Still, most voting rights experts saw the court's ruling as a strong affirmance of the federal government's power to regulate how elections are conducted. Wayne State Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson.
JOCELYN BENSON: What this decision is saying to states in those efforts is you need to check with the federal government before you do those things, and you do need to justify what you're doing to someone else, to essentially the federal government, before you just willy-nilly enact various different requirements to prerequisites to voting.
TOTENBERG: NYU Law School's Richard Pildes echoes that view.
RICHARD PILDES: What Justice Scalia has essentially said here for a substantial majority of the court is if you want modifications to these federal forms that have been required up till now, you have to go to this commission to get those modifications.
TOTENBERG: Of course the federal Election Assistance Commission is all but kaput these days with Republicans in Congress blocking both personnel and funding. Again, professor Pildes.
PILDES: The court's opinion does leave open some possibility that if all of this fails - if the commission is not active, if it doesn't exist, if it can't function - that the federal courts might ultimately have to decide some of these issues. But that's a long, long way down the road, I would think.
TOTENBERG: So, for today, at least, civil rights groups were breathing a sigh of relief. MALDEF's Perales.
PERALES: Arizona's law made it so difficult to run community-based voter drives, whether that was on a college campus or at a mall or at a church festival because people were not physically carrying around documents proving their U.S. citizenship.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, she says that after the Arizona proof of citizenship law was enacted, voter registration dropped 44 percent in the state's most populous county. And it wasn't just Hispanics who were being turned down, says Perales. Eighty percent of those who were rejected were white. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.