WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday struck down an Arizona law requiring that people registering to vote in federal elections provide proof of U.S. citizenship.
In the latest round of an immigration debate pitting state against federal powers, the court in a 7-2 decision declared that Arizona's law went too far. Conservative and liberal justices agreed that, at least when it comes to voter registration, federal law prevails.
"When Congress legislates with respect to the times, places and manner of holding congressional elections, it necessarily displaces some element of a ... legal regime erected by the states," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
The decision is a blow to officials in Alabama, Kansas, Georgia and Texas, who had urged the Supreme Court to let Arizona's law stand.
The court's decision also comes about one year after a different lineup of justices struck down separate Arizona provisions meant to crack down on immigrants in the country illegally. In the earlier case, the court's majority ruled that federal law pre-empted parts of an Arizona law requiring that immigrants carry documents showing proof of legal U.S. residency.
The staunchly conservative Justice Scalia dissented from last year's Arizona decision, but on Monday he led a majority that included one fellow conservative, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., as well as the members of the court's liberal wing. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
"Today's decision is a victory for all Americans," declared Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "The court has reaffirmed the essential American right to register to vote for federal election without the burdens of state voter suppression measures."
Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, sometimes known as the Motor Voter Act, states are required to "accept and use" a standard federal form when registering voters by mail or through motor vehicle departments. Passed over Republican opposition, the law was intended to make it easier for potential voters to register. The federal form includes a simple attestation, under penalty of perjury, that one is a citizen and eligible to vote.
In 2004, though, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, which required that registrants provide evidence of U.S. citizenship. The proof could be a passport, a birth certificate or tribal identification, among other documents. The state law mandated that Arizona officials reject the registration application of anyone who submitted the federal form but omitted the proof of citizenship.
State officials said the documentary proof was necessary to protect against fraudulent registrations provided by activist groups, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, which disbanded in April 2010.
"On one particular occasion, we had gotten a group [of applicants] in, ... and there were 24 that said, 'I am not a citizen,' " the Maricopa County recorder testified at one point, according to Arizona's legal brief.
But the American Civil Liberties Union noted Monday that "in Arizona, 90 percent of the over 31,000 U.S. citizens whose voter registration applications were denied were actually born in the United States."
In its 18-page decision Monday, the court's majority did not dispute the importance of ensuring voter registration integrity, and it did not touch on immigration control at all. Instead, much of Justice Scalia's reasoning reached back to the Constitution's so-called Elections Clause. While the provision declares that the times, places and manners of holding elections "shall be prescribed in each state," the provision also notes that "Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations."
"The Elections Clause requires that Arizona's law give way," Justice Scalia reasoned.
He added that Arizona may still have some other options open to it, including asking the federal Election Assistance Commission to alter the voter registration form so that it requires additional information. At the same time, Justice Scalia acknowledged that the commission currently has no members and so is not in a position to do anything for the state.
In his dissent, Justice Alito countered that "it is appropriate to presume that states retain" the authority to set voter registration requirements as long as Congress has not clearly specified otherwise.
The court is scheduled to end its 2012 term next week.