High court to decide on voter proof of citizenship

Tougher Arizona rule conflicts with federal law

The Arizona law will remain suspended until the Supreme Court hears arguments early next year.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Arizona law will remain suspended until the Supreme Court hears arguments early next year.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether Arizona may require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in federal elections. The federal appeals court in San Francisco had blocked the state law, saying it conflicted with a federal one.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case early next year, and the law will remain suspended until then.

The state law requires prospective voters to prove they are citizens by providing copies of or information concerning various documents, including birth certificates, passports, naturalization papers, or Arizona driver’s licenses, which are available only to people lawfully present in the state.


The federal law, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, allows voters to register using a federal form that asks, ‘‘Are you a citizen of the United States?’’ Prospective voters must check a box for yes or no, and they must sign the form, swearing they are citizens under penalty of perjury.

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The question for the justices is whether the state was entitled to supplement those federal requirements with its own.

A divided 10-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the two sets of requirements ‘‘do not operate harmoniously’’ and ‘‘are seriously out of tune with each other in several ways.’’

The federal law requires state officials to ‘‘accept and use’’ the federal form, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta wrote for an eight-judge majority, while the additional requirements sometimes make that impossible. The requirements were also at odds with the federal law’s attempt to streamline the registration process, she wrote.

In a concurrence, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said he found the case ‘‘difficult and perplexing,’’ largely because the Supreme Court has not set out principles for how to reconcile federal and state responsibilities for conducting federal elections.


In dissent, Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson wrote that the federal law specifically contemplated the use of a different form developed by the state, one that could itself test eligibility requirements, including citizenship.

In urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, state officials said the federal form amounts to an inadequate ‘‘honor system.’’

The ruling could affect at least four other states. Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee have similar laws requiring would-be voters to present evidence of citizenship, according to a legal brief filed by Alabama in support of the Arizona law.

Arizona’s citizenship requirement stems from Proposition 200, a ballot inititative approved by voters in 2004.

The measure also denied some government benefits to illegal immigrants and required all Arizonans to show identification before voting. The Ninth Circuit upheld the voter identification provision. The denial of benefits was not challenged.


Soon after the referendum passed, advocates for Native American, Hispanic, and other groups filed a lawsuit. They included the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the League of Women Voters of Arizona.

The Supreme Court earlier refused Arizona’s request to reinstate the provision before the November elections.

In separate action Monday, the high court deferred action on a New Jersey housing case that could have national implications. The justices may decide in coming weeks whether to take up the case.

The case involves a dispute between civil rights groups and the housing industry over whether the Housing Act of 1968 authorizes discrimination suits even without allegations of intentional bias.

Lower courts have said suits can claim that a government policy or company lending practice has a discriminatory effect even if that was not the intent.

The New Jersey township of Mount Holly has been buying up houses in what it says had become a blighted neighborhood, with plans to redevelop the area.

Opponents say the effort has hurt black and Hispanic residents of the township’s only predominantly minority neighborhood.

Although the Mount Holly case involves municipal action, the Justice Department also enforces the discrimination provision against financial institutions.