By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider the state’s appeals of two rulings blocking Wisconsin’s new voter ID law from taking effect, leaving the issue to lower courts to decide even with recall elections against the governor and five other Republican officials only weeks away.
The court didn’t explain why it wasn’t taking up the state’s appeals in its two single-page orders, which it issued hours after a trial began in one of the cases.
The decision means the law, which would require voters to present photo identification at the polls, will remain blocked pending a ruling by one of the appeals courts, which could come before the May 8 primary elections or June 5 general elections. Gov. Scott Walker, the lieutenant governor and three Republican state senators are facing recall elections, and the seat of another GOP Senate recall target who recently stepped down is also up for grabs.
Separate Dane County circuit court judges issued temporary and permanent injunctions last month blocking the law before Wisconsin’s April 3 primary election, ruling that it impeded the right to vote.
The law’s opponents say it will disenfranchise minority groups, the poor, students and senior citizens who lack the required photo identification. But supporters, including the state Department of Justice which appealed both rulings, said the state has a constitutionally protected interest in making sure there is no fraud at elections.
Two separate state appeals courts last month asked the Supreme Court to take up the cases and consolidate them in order to speed resolution. Four of the seven justices had to agree to take the cases for the high court to hear them.
Given the court’s rejection, the cases now go back to the appeals courts, either of which could rule before the recall elections.
Steve Means, executive assistant at the Department of Justice, said he didn’t know if there will be a ruling before the recall elections given that it typically takes the appeals court nine to 12 months to dispose of cases.
“We are surprised and disappointed,” said DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision.
In one case brought by the League of Women Voters, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess issued a permanent injunction. In the other case, brought by the Milwaukee NAACP chapter and Voces de la Frontera, an immigrants’ rights group, Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan issued a temporary injunction.
Lester Pines, attorney for the League of Women Voters, said the Supreme Court appears to first want the appeals court to issue a ruling it can then react to, rather than take the cases directly.
The trial in the other case began Monday with attorney Richard Saks calling the photo identification requirement an “onerous and unreasonable burden.” He said during opening statements that the law imposed “a radical new requirement for Wisconsin’s electors” that makes voting a “rigorous ordeal.”
The law requires voters to show either a state-issued ID card, valid driver’s license, U.S. passport, a student ID that expires within two years or a military ID.
Saks said testimony from University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Kenneth Mayer will show that hundreds of thousands of voters don’t have the required ID necessary to vote.
But Assistant Attorney General Carrie Benedon said the state will produce its own experts, including a political science professor from the University of Georgia, who will show the number of people in Wisconsin without the necessary IDs is far lower and the burden placed on voters isn’t nearly as large or widespread as alleged.
A demographer will testify that there is very little difference between the number of voting-age adults in the state and those who don’t already have an ID card, Benedon said. The state will also show that problems detailed by voters in getting the required ID could have been easily corrected or were overblown, she said.
Flanagan, the judge hearing the case, drew heat from Republicans because he signed the Walker recall petition in November. Walker is named as a defendant in the lawsuit and is a supporter of the law.
Supporters of the law say it is needed to combat voter fraud. Critics contend that the type of voter fraud the law is meant to prevent is extremely rare, and that it is really intended to stifle turnout among groups who typically vote Democrat.
The first testimony came from a videotaped interview with Ruthelle Frank, 84, of Brokaw, Wis., who said she does not have a birth certificate. That is required in order for her to obtain a state ID card required to vote. In the interview shown in court, Frank said she has voted in nearly every election since 1948 but could not under requirements in the new law.
The Legislature passed its voter ID law last year and it went into effect for the state’s February spring primary. Few problems were reported then, but critics said that was because of the low turnout.
Fifteen states have voter ID laws, but Wisconsin’s was seen as one of the most restrictive.
Two other federal lawsuits challenging Wisconsin’s law are also pending.