The Supreme Court said on Thursday that two Republican leaders of North Carolina’s legislature could step in to defend the state’s voter ID law even though the state’s attorney general, a Democrat, is already doing so.
The opinion will make it easier for other state government officials to intervene in some instances in lawsuits when the state government is divided.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion for an 8-1 court, with only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.
“Through the General Assembly, the people of North Carolina have authorized the leaders of their legislature to defend duly enacted state statutes against constitutional challenge,” Gorsuch wrote. “Ordinarily, a federal court must respect that kind of sovereign choice, not assemble presumptions against it.”
Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said the decision marked the second time this year that “the Justices have stretched existing procedural rules to allow Republican state officials to participate in litigation in which Democratic state officials had already been involved.”
Earlier this term, the Supreme Court said that Kentucky’s Republican attorney general could intervene to defend an abortion law.
Vladeck added: “These decisions will have especially significant ramifications for states with divided governments, in which it’s now that much more likely that there will be multiple parties purporting to speak on the state’s behalf.”
In a solo dissent, Sotomayor argued there was no need for the Court to allow the two North Carolina legislators to intervene when state executive officials were already representing the state’s interests.
“States are entitled to structure themselves as they wish and to decide who should represent their interests in federal litigation,” Sotomayor wrote. “State law may not, however, override the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by requiring federal courts to allow intervention by multiple state representatives who all seek to represent the same state interest that an existing state party is already capably defending.”
North Carolina Senate Bill 824, which was passed in 2018, requires a photo ID to vote. The law was immediately challenged by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, which argued that the law disproportionately impacts African American and Latino voters.
The two North Carolina GOP lawmakers – Philip Berger, president pro tempore of the state Senate, and Timothy Moore, speaker of the state House of Representatives – brought the case, arguing that the Democratic state attorney general is not adequately representing their interests.
North Carolina Attorney General Joshua Stein had urged the justices to reject the petition, noting that the state is “already actively defending the challenged law.”
A district court had ruled against Berger and Moore, holding that they could not show that their interests weren’t being adequately represented. A federal appeals court initially ruled in favor of the legislators, but then a larger panel of judges on the same court reversed the ruling.
This story has been updated with additional information.