By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — A state judge Wednesday upheld Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, setting up a likely appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson wrote he was convinced the state would fully comply with the law and that plaintiffs in the case did not meet the requirements to obtain an injunction against application of the law.
Plaintiffs in the case did not clearly establish that “disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable” as a result of the new law, Simpson wrote in a 70-page decision.
During nearly two weeks of hearings on the controversial law, plaintiffs argued it was passed without adequate time for all Pennsylvanians to comply with its requirements before the November elections. They also argued the law was passed to give a partisan advantage to Republican candidates because groups more likely to vote Democratic – including minorities, women, students and the elderly – were less likely to have official state identification.
“Given clear evidence that impersonation fraud is not a problem, we had hoped that the court would show greater concern for the hundreds of thousands of voters who will be disenfranchised by this law,” said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which represented the plaintiffs — most of whom poor Philadelphians — in the case.
Simpson wrote that plaintiffs “did an excellent job of ‘putting a face’ to those burdened by the new requirement” but he could not decide the case purely on sympathy for the witnesses.
The case is expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, the sponsor of the law, approved by the General Assembly in March, said the court ruling was a victory for the people of the state.
When the law passed earlier this year, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett argued it was necessary to prevent voter fraud and ensure that all votes were counted equally. But lawyers for the state admitted in court filings that no identifiable instances of voter fraud would be curbed by the new law.
Instead, they primarily argued the Legislature had the right to set new requirements for voting.
In his ruling, Simpson pointed to the fact the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar law in Indiana in 2005, despite the absence of any evidence of in-person voter fraud in that state.
“Accordingly, I conclude that the absence of proof of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania is not by itself dispositive,” he wrote.
Republicans modeled the Pennsylvania statute after the Indiana law.
Simpson also cited that U.S. Supreme Court ruling as explanation for why he dismissed claims the law was passed for partisan political reasons.
The judge did admonish House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, for publically stating the new voter ID law would allow “Romney to win Pennsylvania.” Turzai became the focus of national talking heads for the comment, which was made in July at a meeting of the Republican State Committee and captured on camera.
Simpson called those comments “disturbing,” but said they were not sufficient to prove the law was passed for political reasons alone.
Turzai steered clear of inflammatory remarks Wednesday by issuing a statement on the decision.
“The integrity of each and every valid vote was upheld today,” Turzai said. “It’s about one person, one vote, and each instance of fraud dilutes legitimate votes.”
Plaintiffs fell short of demonstrating greater harm would be caused by not granting an injunction, the judge ruled.
In an odd twist, Simpson wrote that granting an injunction against the voter ID law could actually cause greater harm than the law itself — as an injunction would halt the state’s ongoing educational efforts. In the event the injunction was overturned on appeal, the effort would be to shorten the amount of time voters had to comply with the new law, he wrote.
“The process of implementation in general, and of public outreach and education in particular, is much harder to start, or restart, than it is to stop,” Simpson wrote.
If that was a primary concern, the judge should not have held hearings on the law, which took time that could have been used to move the appeals process along, said state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the law was designed, passed and would be implemented with the intent to disenfranchise voters. He questioned whether Simpson’s political affiliation may have influenced the decision.
Simpson was elected to the bench as a Republican in 2001.
“I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s a Republican judge by a Republican-controlled General Assembly, that is enacting legislation … that provides for a very significant advantage to the Republican Party here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Costa said.
Opponents vowed to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, but the current dynamic of the court suggests Simpson’s ruling might stick.
The state Supreme Court is split evenly with three Republicans and three Democrats; one seat on the bench is vacant and will not be filled before the court would hear any appeals in the voter ID case.
Four votes would be needed to overturn the lower court ruling, meaning one Republican would probably have to vote against the Republican-drafted law to kill it.