The Supreme Court issued orders from its January 19 conference this morning. After granting review in two cases from that conference last week, the justices did not add any new cases to their merits docket today. But there was one notable denial on today’s order list: Abbott v. Veasey, the challenge to a Texas law that requires voters to present specific forms of government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. The plaintiffs, including the federal government, argued that the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars voting practices or procedures that discriminate based on race. The lower courts agreed, and the state asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, but (after considering the case at three consecutive conferences) the justices declined to do so.
In a relatively unusual move, Chief Justice John Roberts issued a separate statement regarding today’s denial of review. Roberts suggested that, although the court will not take up the case right now, it could still do so in the future. He emphasized that the issues on which the state had asked the justices to weigh in – whether the legislature passed the voter ID law with an intent to discriminate and whether the law violates the federal Voting Rights Act – have not yet been finally determined by the lower courts, where proceedings are still ongoing. When those issues have been decided, Roberts noted, the state can always come back to the Supreme Court. At that point, he stressed, the two issues “will be better suited” for the court’s review – and, although he did not acknowledge it, the court is likely to have a ninth justice, appointed by President Donald Trump.
If the case does eventually return to the Supreme Court, the state could also have an important new ally: the federal government. Although the Obama administration had been one of the plaintiffs challenging the Texas law, on Friday the U.S. Department of Justice asked the federal district court handling the case to delay a hearing, scheduled for tomorrow, for 30 days. “Because of the change in administration,” the Department of Justice explained, the department “also experienced a change in leadership. The United States requires additional time to brief the new leadership of the Department on this case and the issues to be addressed at that hearing before making any representations to the Court.” Although there is no way to know for certain until the Department of Justice makes additional filings, Friday’s filing seems to at least leave open the possibility that the federal government could change its position on the Texas voter ID law.
The justices also denied review in an Alabama death-row inmate’s challenge to the state’s advisory-jury death sentencing scheme, which the inmate, Tommy Arthur, described as “in all relevant respects the same” as the Florida scheme struck down last year. The court had considered the case at four conferences before denying review without comment. However, the justices did not act on Arthur’s other petition for review, involving challenges related to the state’s lethal injection protocol. In November, the justices stayed Arthur’s execution, with Roberts providing the fifth vote to do so. It may be some time before Arthur learns whether the court will hear that case: The justices begin their winter recess today and will not meet for their next conference until February 17.