HARRISBURG, Pa. - Strategies will shift as the first court battle over Pennsylvania's new law requiring voters to show valid photo identification will head to the state Supreme Court, while other legal hurdles could surface.
The law's Republican backers and, they say, the integrity of the Nov. 6 presidential election were the winners of Wednesday's decision by a state appellate judge to reject an injunction that would have halted the law from taking effect in November, as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
An appeal is imminent by about a dozen rights groups and registered voters, who say the law will trample the right to vote for countless people in an echo of the now-unconstitutional poll taxes and literacy tests once designed to discriminate against poor and minority voters.
The Republican-penned law — opposed by every single Democratic lawmaker — has ignited a furious debate over voting rights in Pennsylvania, which is poised to play a starring role in deciding the presidential contest.
Democrats say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to help the Republican presidential challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, beat President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Republicans, who for years have harbored suspicions of ballot-box stuffing in the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, say the law is a common-sense measure.
At the state Supreme Court, votes by four justices would be needed to overturn Simpson's ruling. The high court is currently split between three Republicans and three Democrats following the recent suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican who is fighting criminal corruption charges.
Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who aided the legal challenge, said the justices could have the appeal resolved within a month if they move quickly.
A key element of the appeal is likely to revolve around Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson's choice to give strong deference to the government, rather than putting a heavier legal burden on it to justify a law that, opponents say, infringes on a constitutional right.
"I don't know of any other state court that has ruled on photo ID that has applied such a low standard, that has protected the right to vote so little," said Penda Hair, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supplied part of the legal team challenging the law.
Simpson, a Republican, didn't rule on the full merits of the case, only whether to grant a preliminary injunction stopping it from taking effect. But he rejected the suit's claims that the law is unconstitutional and ruled that the challenge did not meet the stiff requirements to win an injunction.
In the meantime, state elections officials have until the middle of next week to supply information to Obama's Department of Justice, which is looking at Pennsylvania's law and has moved to block voter ID laws in other states. Another lawsuit is pending from the state's second most populous county, Allegheny County.
On Wednesday, the Obama campaign said it would continue to spread the word about the law, and the state Republican and Democratic parties each emailed out fundraising appeals Wednesday spinning off Simpson's ruling.
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, signed the law in March.