In a case that could have widening impact on voting, the Supreme Court agreed to consider an appeal from Arizona regarding its voter ID law that requires voters to prove they are American citizens before registering to vote.
The justices announced on Monday that they will evaluate a federal appeals court ruling that blocked the law in some instances.
A 10-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that federal law trumps the Arizona requirement. Federal law allows voters to fill out a mail-in voter registration card and swear they are citizens under penalty of perjury, but it doesn't require them to show proof as Arizona's 2004 law does.
Four other states, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee, have similar requirements, according to a legal brief filed by Alabama in support of the Arizona law. The case poses some of the same issues as voter identification disputes. Arizona and the other states argue that they should be allowed to ask for additional documentation to keep illegal immigrants and other non-citizens off the voting rolls. Opponents of the laws say they are used to exclude disproportionately poor and minority voters who lack birth certificates and other identity documents.
Arguments will not take place until February, with a decision likely by late June. The justices earlier refused Arizona's request to reinstate the provision before the November elections.
The ruling applies only to people who seek to register using the federal mail-in form. Arizona has its own form and an online system to register when renewing a driver's license. The court ruling did not affect proof of citizenship requirements using the state forms.
Arizona officials have said most people use those methods and the state form is what county officials give people to use to register. But voting rights advocates had hoped the 9th Circuit decision would make the federal mail-in card more popular because it's more convenient than mailing in a state form with a photocopy of proof of citizenship.
The mail-in card is particularly useful for voter registration drives, said Robert Kengle of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing Native American and Hispanic groups in the case.
The citizenship requirement stems from Proposition 200, approved by Arizona voters in 2004. The law also denied some government benefits to illegal immigrants and required Arizonans to show identification before voting. The 9th Circuit upheld the voter identification provision. The denial of benefits was not challenged.
Soon after voter's approved the law, Latino, native American and other rights advocacy groups filed lawsuits challenging the voter registration provision and other aspects of the law.
The appeals court has issued multiple rulings in the case concerning the need for registrants to prove they are U.S. citizens. A three-judge panel initially sided with Arizona. A second panel that included retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who from time to time sits on appeals courts, reversed course and blocked the registration requirement.
At that point, the appeals court judges voted to have the case heard by the larger, en banc court. The federal and state governments share responsibility for elections and this dispute is over where the line should be drawn between them.