Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court justices on Thursday aggressively questioned whether a politically charged law requiring photo identification from each voter should take effect for the Nov. 6 presidential election and whether it guarantees the right to vote.
With the election just 54 days away, the justices did not say when they will decide, although lawyers in the case expected them to rule before the end of September.
The high court appeal follows a lower court's refusal last month to halt the law from taking effect. The law -- championed by Republicans over the objections of Democrats -- is now part of the heated election-year political rhetoric in the presidential swing state and has inspired protests, warnings of Election Day chaos and voter education drives.
- READ: Pa.'s Voter ID Law
Republicans justified the law as a bulwark against potential election fraud. The tougher rules were already a lightning rod for supporters of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, when a top state Republican lawmaker said in June that the ID requirement “is going to allow (former Massachusetts) Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
The six justices -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- saved their most aggressive questions for lawyers representing the state and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed the law in March. A couple exchanges became testy.
In opening statements by a lawyer for the plaintiffs, justices asked whether it would be acceptable for the photo identification requirement to be phased in over a longer period of time -- say, a period covering two federal elections.
The lawyer, David Gersch, replied that it would, as long as the law guarantees the right to vote to each registered voter, even someone who cannot get a photo ID that is among several types that are valid under the law. Other states, such as Georgia and Michigan, have made such guarantees in their laws, Gersch said.
But under Pennsylvania's 6-month-old law, “there's too little time, there's too many people affected and there's no place in the statute that guarantees that qualified electors can get the ID they need to vote,” Gersch told the justices.
Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, questioned the state's lawyers about whether the law guarantees that every registered voter will be able to get an ID, or at least cast a vote. Justice Debra Todd, a Democrat, flatly suggested the law is unconstitutional. Justice Seamus McCaffrey, also a Democrat, pushed the state's lawyers to explain the Republican rationale used to pass the law and whether the Legislature deserves deference for its decision to pass a politically charged law that tramples the rights of citizens.
The state's lawyers argued that lawmakers properly exercised their constitutional latitude to make election-related laws and that every registered voter, including those suing, will be able to cast a ballot, either after getting a valid photo ID or by absentee ballot if they are disabled or frail.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs insist their clients, as well as hundreds of thousands of other registered voters, do not know about the complicated requirements, do not have a valid ID or will be unable to get one.
The high court normally has seven members. But it heard the case with just six and a 3-3 deadlock would allow the lower court decision to stand. A seventh justice, Republican Joan Orie Melvin, was suspended in May after being charged in a political corruption investigation.
As justices heard the cases inside, folks rallied outside for and against the law.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson last month rejected the plaintiffs' request for an injunction. In his 70-page opinion, Simpson said the plaintiffs did not show that "disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable" and, thanks to the state's efforts, getting a valid photo ID "does not qualify as a substantial burden on the vast supermajority of registered voters."
But lawyers for the plaintiffs say Simpson ignored state court decisions that should have convinced him that the right to vote deserves special protection against an unnecessarily strict law. They also say Simpson made no finding that the law will somehow achieve public confidence in elections, a key justification used by lawmakers who supported it.