HARRISBURG -- A Commonwealth Court judge on Friday ruled the Pennsylvania voter ID law violates the state constitution by imposing an unreasonable burden on voters, dealing the controversial requirement its most serious blow in nearly two years of litigation.
The top attorney to Gov. Tom Corbett, one of many Republicans who support the law, said the administration has yet to determine whether it will appeal to the state Supreme Court, although observers and the law's challengers expect it will.
The Supreme Court worked quickly when it addressed voter ID in the run-up to the 2012 election, so it remains unknown whether voters will be required to show photo identification in the May primary.
For now, however, the law is invalid after Judge Bernard McGinley of Commonwealth Court found that it "unreasonably burdens the right to vote" and threatens a fundamental right of hundreds of thousands of qualified voters.
"Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal," the decision states.
The Republican-controlled Legislature in March 2012 passed the law, one of the strictest in the nation, over objections from Democrats, who, along with other critics, said the measure would suppress voting by poor people, minorities and elderly residents.
The law requires all Pennsylvania voters to show one of certain forms of photo identification -- a driver's license or passport, but not welfare cards or the many college IDs that lack expiration dates.
Pennsylvania is one of several states that in recent years have approved laws requiring voters to show identification, and the state's law received national attention ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
The legal challenge on behalf of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Homeless Advocacy Project and a number of voters was met with an initial Commonwealth Court ruling declining to stop the law for the 2012 election and then a state Supreme Court order that the lower court reconsider. The law's full requirements have been blocked at each election since its passage.
In a 50-page determination (with another 50 pages of appendices) issued Friday morning, Judge McGinley found that a lack of compelling governmental interest in imposing the requirement -- the state acknowledged at the start that it knew of no cases of in-person voting fraud, the kind addressed by voter ID -- could not justify the law in the face of "overwhelming evidence" that hundreds of thousands of qualified voters lack acceptable documentation.
"Certainly a vague concern about voter fraud does not rise to a level that justifies the burdens constructed here," the decision states.
Judge McGinley concluded the law unnecessarily restricts the types of acceptable identification, leaving out welfare cards, school district employee cards, gun permits and Pennsylvania college IDs that lack expiration dates. Noting that military retiree IDs and most student IDs lack expiration dates, he went so far as to conclude: "The voter ID law as written suggests a legislative disconnect from reality."
Other states with voter ID policies, he wrote, provide greater safeguards against disenfranchisement. And while defenders of the law spent much of a hearing last summer citing a new form of state identification, issued free and without supporting documents, the judge found that problems with the Department of State ID, including its availability at only 71 PennDOT licensing centers, leaves a significant barrier for voters.
Republican legislative leaders suggested Friday's ruling runs afoul of a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a voter ID law in Indiana. That law was considered among the nation's strictest, and supporters of voter ID have cited the ruling as a defense of the policy elsewhere.
"We think it's wrong," said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson. "It runs counter to the United States Supreme Court decision. It's basically saying that people who apply for a passport, a hiking or fishing license, a driver's license, go to their kid's school, have an undue burden, because photo identification is required for each of those actions."
But the Pennsylvania case was brought primarily under the state constitution, which Commonwealth Court interpreted to have especially strong protections of the right to vote, said Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University School of Law.
"Given the long and arduous path this case has followed up till now, and in light of this very detailed fact-finding, I would be surprised if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed this decision," Mr. Gormley said. "Now the bigger question in my mind is whether a different form of a voter ID law that corrects these problems identified in the opinion can and will be enacted by the Legislature. That seems to me to be where the new battleground will be."
While an appeal is expected, James Schultz, Mr. Corbett's general counsel, said Friday evening that administration attorneys need to review the decision and decide how to proceed. The administration will likely decide early next week if it will file post-trial motions with the Commonwealth Court, he said.
"Following that, any ruling we would get from that court, then we would potentially take the matter up to the Supreme Court," he said.
The office of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose attorneys represented the state alongside administration lawyers, said it awaits instruction from the governor.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont said the Corbett administration should let the ruling stand.
"It vindicates what we've been saying all along, that it was unconstitutional, that it was a solution in search of a problem," he said.
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 717-787-2141. Twitter: @karen_langley. First Published January 17, 2014 9:17 AM