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Supreme Court Rejects Arizona's Proof Of Citizenship Law


On a Monday, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. We're reporting this morning on a decision just out from the U.S. Supreme Court. The court tossed out an Arizona law that required proof of citizenship for its voters. In a 7-2 decision the justices said the state's voter-approved Proposition 200 interfered with federal law.

For more on this morning's decision on this Arizona law, we're joined in studio by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thank you both for coming in.


RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So Carrie, let's start with you. Explain this case to us and what this decision about this Arizona law means.

JOHNSON: Sure. So this lawsuit was initially filed by a group of prospective Arizona voters, including some naturalized U.S. citizens who were denied the right to vote, as well as some non-profit groups. And what they essentially said was that the state's imposition of a new requirement that would make them show additional proof of citizenship was not compliant with federal law. And the Supreme Court today by a ruling of 7-2 agreed, David. What Justice Antonin Scalia said, writing for the majority, was that the U.S. Constitution and the Elections Clause of the Constitution puts this power with the federal government.

States under the law have the power to regulate the time, place and manner of congressional elections, but the federal government remains firmly in the driver's seat.

GREENE: And Carrie, just to be clear here, Arizona was trying to add some requirements to prove citizenship and the court is basically saying that the federal government takes care of that, that there's a law in place that does enough to show that a person is a citizen before they vote.

JOHNSON: That very short federal form, David, the court said, is controlled by the federal government. But Justice Scalia gave Arizona an option here, which is to say that if Arizona wants the feds to ask some additional questions for some additional information, Arizona as a state has the right to request that of the federal government, and if the feds disagree, Arizona can sue.

GREENE: And Carrie, but the federal law we're talking about, is this the motor-voter law that a lot of people are familiar with, where you kind of fill out a form and you can register to vote when you get your driver's license?

JOHNSON: That's exactly right, David. This is the 1993 law known as the motor-voter registration, but one year after that, Arizona passed this Proposition 200, imposing new requirements on voters in that state.

GREENE: Okay, Carrie, stay with us. Ron, let me ask you. There's been a whole lot of anticipation here in Washington about the Supreme Court deciding on voting rights. Is this the big one that we've been waiting for?

ELVING: No. The big one we've been waiting for is a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That's the Shelby County case, and we are expecting the Supreme Court to decide that case either this Thursday or perhaps a week from today, Monday, or perhaps in the last Thursday of the month.

GREENE: And that could be more sweeping when it comes to voting rights.

ELVING: Yes, and sadly this does not necessarily tell us one way or another which way the court's going to go. We'd love to be able to read the tea leaves and say now we know where the court's going in Shelby, but we just don't. This is a different set of issues, and as Carrie has said, it has a great deal to do with the manner in which Arizona went about challenging the federal rights here.

If Arizona chooses to go about it a different way, Justice Scalia suggests that he at least, out of this majority of seven, might see the case differently, and it's possible other justices would as well. This does not tell us how they feel about the basic Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its requirements that certain states that had shown a pattern of discrimination in the past would have to pre-submit any changes they're making to voting laws to the federal government for the Justice Department's review.

That has been enormously controversial all the way back to 1965. It is today. And that's the big case we're waiting for in the days ahead.

GREENE: Okay, we're waiting for Shelby Country vs. Holder. That will tell us a lot about the Voting Rights Act and whether it stands up. Scalia seems to give a lot of wiggle room here to Arizona and other states. What does this case mean when it comes to nuts and bolts, Carrie? I mean are there some things that states now have to do differently?

JOHNSON: Nuts and bolts - this decision reaffirms that it's the federal government that's in charge of these issues, and it does limit states' role in elections. David, the open question in several states, including Alabama, Kansas and Georgia, which have similar statutes, as does Arizona, is what this means for them and whether they're going to try an alternative route, as Justice Scalia suggested.

GREENE: And Ron, in the few seconds we have left, there's some big cases coming from the court - on gay marriage. When are we going to hear these other big decisions? The time is sort of running out, isn't it?

ELVING: It is definitely running out. There's very little sand left in the hourglass. Thursday of this week, Monday of next week. Maybe Thursday of next week. And that should do it for gay rights, for the Voting Rights Act, and for all the other cases that are still hanging fire(ph).

GREENE: We'll all be watching. NPR's Carrie Johnson and Ron Elving, thank you both for joining us.

ELVING: Thank you, David.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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