The sun sets on the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2022.
The sun sets on the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2022. Reuters / JOSHUA ROBERTS

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Republican lawmakers in North Carolina can intervene in a lawsuit challenging a voter-ID law that they believed the state's Democratic attorney general was unlikely to defend strongly enough.

In an 8-1 decision authored by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court ruled that two Republican legislative leaders could join the lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of a 2018 law that Attorney General Josh Stein was already defending.

The federal litigation over the Republican-backed law's legality was put on hold awaiting the Supreme Court's action, but state court judges blocked the measure last September, finding that the ID requirement unlawfully discriminated against Black voters.

The law was intended to implement an amendment to the state's constitution that voters approved in 2018 requiring people going to the polls to present photo identification.

Gorsuch said state law authorized the lawmakers to participate in cases like this and that a "presumption of adequate representation is inappropriate when a duly authorized state agent seeks to intervene to defend a state law."

"Casting aspersions on no one, this litigation illustrates how divided state governments sometimes warrant participation by multiple state officials in federal court," Gorsuch wrote.

The Republican lawmakers are Philip Berger, leader of the state Senate, and Timothy Moore, speaker of the state House of Representatives. Moore said in a statement that the law's supporters deserve more than "a tepid defense by an attorney general who has a history of opposing voter ID."

Nazneen Ahmed, a spokesperson for Stein, said his office "will continue to vigorously defend state law."

Democrats have accused Republicans of pursuing measures including those requiring voters to show certain forms of identification to cast a ballot in order to make it more difficult for certain groups of people who tend to back Democrats to vote in elections. Republicans have said such measures are needed to prevent voting fraud.

Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the measure, but the Republican-led legislature overrode this action and enacted it.

The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP civil rights group sued, contending the measure discriminated against Black and Latino voters and violated the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law and 15th Amendment prohibition on voting discrimination based on race.

Stein, a Democrat, had voted against an earlier voter-ID law when he served as a state senator. But after the lawsuit was filed, he assumed responsibility for defending the state's board of elections in the case.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissent wrote that "the court's conclusion that state respondents inadequately represented petitioners' interests is a fiction that the record does not support."

Thursday's ruling overturned a decision by the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in holding that the lawmakers were not entitled to intervene noted that Stein had earlier convinced it to overturn an order temporarily blocking enforcement of the law.