Lawyers on both sides of the state's new voter ID law argued for close to an hour and a half Thursday in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, one side contending that the law will deprive thousands of people of their right to vote in November, the other describing the law as an appropriate use of the legislature's power to regulate state elections.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, widely regarded as a critical swing vote whose personal stance may decide whether the law remains in effect for the Nov. 6 election, asked few questions but suggested the court would issue a ruling as soon as its six members reach a decision.
They are considering an appeal from a lower-court ruling, by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr., upholding the law as a valid exercise of legislative authority over elections.
Opponents of the law, an assortment of individuals, civil rights groups and others, attacked it as an illegal restriction on voting rights guaranteed by the state Constitution.
Two justices in particular, Seamus McCaffery and Debra McCloskey Todd, grilled the state's attorneys on why the legislature was determined to implement the law in November, with a Presidential race on the line and Pennsylvania regarded in some quarters as a swing state.
"Could there be politics, maybe?" McCaffery asked, prompting a brief spurt of laughter in the Supreme Court's courtroom on the 4th floor of City Hall, filled to standing-room-only with more than a hundred spectators.
Justice Thomas G. Saylor, referring to the language of the law itself, asked an unexpected series of questions, suggesting that the Corbett administration was not following a specific mandate that the state provide photo ID to any registered voters who need it.
That provision of the law was in potential conflict with federal Homeland Security requirements, the state's attorneys responded, but the state had developed a plan to provide registered voters with photo ID good for voting purposes only, requiring voters to provide only their dates of birth and Social Security numbers, along with proofs of their current residence.
The key question before the court this morning was: Will the new law prevent even a single person from exercising their right to vote?
David Gersch, an attorney for the appellants, argued that the Court has historically recognized that voting is a fundamental right. He also noted, several times, that the state has acknowledged that it knows of no instances of in-person voting fraud, yet has passed a law to ostensibly protect against a problem that does not exist.
Gersch also argued that there is not enough time to properly implement the law and ensure that every state resident obtains the proper form of photo ID. The legislature passed voter ID in the spring, and law is in effect for this November's presidential election.
"There is too little time and too many people affected," said Gersch.
Attorneys for the state argued that the legislature has the authority to regulate elections, and that the voter ID law fell well within that authority.
John Knorr, of the state Attorney General's Office, also noted that the timing of the law has nothing to do with the fundamental question before the court, which is whether requiring people to show a photo ID at the polls will disenfranchise them.
Simpson in his ruling last month did not believe that people would be disenfranchised, Knorr noted.
But some justices questioned whether politics played into the legislature's decision to pass a voter ID law. The bill was approved by the legislature strictly along partisan lines: Republicans for, Democrats against.
McCaffery made inferences to the now-infamous comments by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who told a roomful of Republicans earlier this summer that the law would help Gov. Romney win Pennsylvania.
"What's the rush," McCaffery asked about implementing the law for the November election. "Who's it going to hurt?"
The court is expected to render its decision swiftly, since the law's opponents are seeking an injunction before the November election.
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