The Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday morning sharply questioned attorneys about the state's five-year-old voter identification law, debating whether the requirements impose an unconstitutional burden on some voters who can't obtain the necessary photo ID.
While the five justices delved into the merits and asked about the burdens involved with obtaining the IDs, they expressed some reluctance to rule on those merits because of procedural questions about who's suing and being named in the suit - no individuals specifically impacted by this law are named as plaintiffs and there's a question about whether Secretary of State Todd Rokita is the appropriate defendant.
Whether that becomes a focal point for the court remains to seen, but the justices' ultimate decision is guaranteed to be highly anticipated as it's the latest in a line of litigation ongoing since the state statute passed in 2005.
Justices heard arguments in League of Women Voters of Indiana and League of Women Voters of Indianapolis v. Todd Rokita, No. 49S02-1001-CV-50. The case is before the high court after the Indiana Court of Appeals in September struck down the law, finding it "regulates voters in a manner that's not uniform and impartial." This state case follows a separate 2008 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law on federal grounds, but left the door open for as applied challenges and cases involving state constitutional claims.
In this case out of Marion County, the League of Women Voters claims the voter ID law violates Article 2, Section 2 of the state constitution that says citizens only need to meet age, citizenship, and residency requirements in order to vote in person. The plaintiffs also argue the statute violates the state constitution's equal privileges section because it doesn't treat all voters the same. Marion Superior Judge S.K. Reid had upheld the law in 2008, and the justices granted transfer in January to consider the issue.
Neither side was able to delve much into their own arguments during their respective 30 minutes since the justices dominated the discussion with pointed questions for each lawyer. Attorney Karen Celestino-Horseman represents the League of Women Voters, while Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher is representing the state.
Fisher argued that Indiana precedent from 1922 allows the legislature to regulate voting as needed, as long as the requirements aren't "grossly unreasonable and not practically impossible to comply with."
"The state voter ID law is a step in the process of modernizing elections, and this is another safeguard in making it more secure and giving them more integrity," Fisher said, adding that poll hours, voting booth time limits, and ballot setups all impose some type of restriction on voters. "All kinds of voting regulations impose some type of burden... those regulations are designed to make the process one of integrity. But that's never been the test on whether a regulation is constitutional."
But some justices pressed Fisher on that point during the hour-long discussion.
"There is a whole group out there that effectively has been denied the right to vote," Justice Robert D. Rucker said. "How can you convince us this is a system of integrity, if so many people can't find a way to vote? How does that inspire confidence that it's a system we can trust and rely on?"
Fisher said the difficulties have been overstated, and the state's put in place various ways for people who might be burdened to obtain the needed IDs. He said that individuals can also fill out provisional ballots allowing them to vote and have another 10 days to get the needed documentation.
But Celestino-Horseman said that 10-day period doesn't matter and won't change anything for those who can't get the documentation in the first place. She made the analogy about someone being required to have their voter ID number tattoed to their arm - that isn't the disparate treatment, she said, just as reaching into a wallet to produce a photo ID isn't the disparate treatment in this case.
"The disparate treatment is to those who vote in person, and have no other option than to vote except in person because they don't qualify for an absentee ballot," she said. "To do that, they must do the equivalent of bringing in a stack of documents in order to vote."
Justice Frank Sullivan wondered why no individuals have come forward as plaintiffs in the three election cycles - six or seven actual elections - since this law took effect, and he also questioned why the state hasn't had any documented cases of in-person fraud if this is such a big issue.
Posing a hypothetical, Justice Sullivan asked what would change in this case if the legislature decided, because of the current fiscal crisis, to impose a $250 charge for state IDs. Fisher responded that would be a "game-changer," but that lawmakers had thought of such issues when it debated voter ID. Celestino-Horseman said that didn't matter, because for some a $5 fee would be too much of a burden to obtain the documents.
Recognizing that some burden may exist on voters to obtain the required ID to cast a ballot in-person, justices hesitated on procedural issues since the case doesn't include any affected voters as plaintiffs.
"Should people have to go to that kind of trouble, just to exercise that single most fundamental right?" Justice Sullivan asked rhetorically. "(It's) a lot to have to go through just to do that. It seems like there's a real hardship on those people to produce those documents required. But on this record, we don't have those people before us."
Celestino-Horseman said that if the justices send the case back to Marion Superior Judge S.K. Reid for it to proceed, the league would have more time to flush out those issues and explore evidence on both sides.