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Details: Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.

As part of an effort to increase voter registration and turnout, in 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act.  The Act requires states to “accept and use” a specific federal form for voter registration; that form asks, among other things, whether the would-be voter is a citizen of the United States and over the age of eighteen.  In 2004, Arizona voters approved a law that requires election officials in that state to refuse to register any would-be voter who cannot prove that he is in fact a citizen.  Arizona residents, along with voting and civil rights groups, challenged the state law, arguing that it could not stand because it conflicted with, and was trumped by, the NVRA.  The challengers won in the lower court, and the Supreme Court granted review last fall to consider not only whether the state law can survive, but also whether the lower court used the right test in making its decision:  that court held that because the Constitution allows Congress to make or change election rules established by the states, Congress can veto any state laws relating to elections, even if it doesn’t make clear that it intends to do so.

Today the Court held, in a seven-to-two decision by Justice Scalia, that Arizona’s law cannot stand in the face of the NVRA. The Court first recognized that under the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to dictate when, where, and how elections are held, and state election laws that conflict with federal ones are therefore preempted and without effect. The Court thus held that by requiring states to “accept and use” the federal form, the NVRA effectively required the states to treat the federal form as sufficient evidence of citizenship without any additional proof, so that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement was contrary to the NVRA, and therefore invalid.  The Court recognized that the words “accept and use” do not necessarily carry such a broad meaning – they could mean only that the state was required to consider the federal form – but based on the context and the other provisions in the NVRA, the Court concluded that the requirement to “accept and use” the federal form has the stronger effect of requiring states to treat the federal form as sufficient. On the question of which legal test to apply, the Court made it clear that while preemption under the Supremacy Clause (which provides that federal law generally trumps contrary state law) requires Congress to clearly state its intent to preempt state requirements, preemption under the Elections Clause is more easily found because federal elections law will always displace state law.

Finally, the Court held that in the future, Arizona can ask the federal Election Assistance Commission, which creates the federal form, to include a requirement of additional proof of citizenship in the form, and to bring different legal challenges if the EAC refuses to do so.

Justice Kennedy drafted a separate opinion concurring in part and in the judgment; Justices Thomas and Alito each filed a dissenting opinion, arguing that Arizona’s requirement should not have been held preempted.

Recommended Citation: Tejinder Singh, Details: Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., SCOTUSblog (Jun. 17, 2013, 11:00 AM),