PHILADELPHIA -- The justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court peppered attorneys on either side of the voter ID dispute with questions during the final appeal of an attempt to stop the law before the November elections.
The high court is the last venue for a claim that the state Constitution does not allow a new state law requiring voters to show one of several forms of photo identification at the polls. As they made their case, the groups appealing a lower court's decision upholding the law argued the requirement would disenfranchise or burden many rightful voters. Attorneys for the state and two of its top officials disputed that claim and argued the Constitution allows the Legislature to regulate elections through laws like the voter ID requirement.
David Gersch, the attorney arguing to stop the law, said the voter ID law is a greater burden than those permissible regulations.
"If your right is safeguarded in the Constitution, it's not something the Legislature gets to change," he said.
When the justices asked Mr. Gersch whether the law would be allowed if the state could ensure each voter would have acceptable ID, he responded that such a guarantee would make the case unnecessary.
"The vice is in requiring ID that people don't have and have a hard time getting," he said.
Chief Deputy Attorney General John Knorr, who defended the law, told the court the challengers had not met the legal test required to stop a law from taking effect. He was asked if voting is a fundamental right with the accompanying legal protections. Mr. Knorr responded that the right to vote is fundamental but that elections require regulation by the state.
"The right to vote at its core is obviously fundamental," he said. "But not everything that affects that right is fundamental."
Asked how the state could prevail against an estimate by its agencies that up to 9 percent of voters could lack acceptable identification, Mr. Knorr said he believed the actual number was much lower, and he described efforts by state agencies since the passage of the law to help people obtain identification.
The Supreme Court is occupied by three Republican and three Democratic justices after the suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican who faces criminal charges. A 3-3 tie would affirm the decision of the lower court to let the law proceed.
Attorneys on both sides said the expect the court will rule quickly because of the impending elections.
At a rally before the hearing, Benjamin Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, said: "We must be very clear that what we're fighting for in this moment is democracy itself."
Betty Lee, a voter who attended the rally, said she believes the law will be overturned -- but that whatever happens, voters will turn out en masse in November.
"We're in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was built," she said. "Do the right thing for the people."
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141. First Published September 13, 2012 4:30 AM