The constitutionality of North Carolina’s voter ID law is still up in the air — but on Thursday, Republican lawmakers won a related legal fight at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices didn’t rule on the voter ID case itself. But they did rule that GOP leaders can intervene in the case as defendants.

That may sound like just a procedural update, but it’s important for two reasons.

For one, it gives Republicans lawmakers permission to hire outside lawyers to defend the state, instead of continuing to use lawyers from the N.C. Department of Justice under Attorney General Josh Stein. That gives them more control over the arguments and legal strategy.

Even though Stein’s office has been winning the case so far, Republicans have said his lawyers can’t be trusted. Other Democratic politicians have said the voter ID law is racially discriminatory and should be overturned.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers North Carolina, had denied lawmakers’ request to intervene in the case. They noted that Stein’s office won the argument in front of them when they heard it and said the GOP couldn’t point to anything he had done wrong in winning the case for them. On Thursday, the Supreme Court overturned that Court of Appeals ruling.

The decision doesn’t mean Stein’s office is kicked off the case. He’s still defending the N.C. State Board of Elections, who are the main defendants. But Republican legislators can now hire their own lawyers and craft their own legal strategy, in addition to the case made by Stein and the elections officials.

Republican lawmakers also had a second reason to want to intervene: They’re now allowed to block any potential settlement agreement that might otherwise have ended the lawsuit.

When legislators passed the 2021 state budget, they attached several laws that were unrelated to state spending, including a new law giving themselves the power to block settlements in lawsuits they’re involved in, even just as intervenors, which they now are.

Before the Supreme Court’s ruling, the voter ID case could’ve been settled if a judge approved an agreement between the liberal challengers and the N.C. State Board of Elections, which has a Democratic majority. Now Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore must also sign off on any proposed settlement.

What’s next for voter ID lawsuits

With the legislature now officially part of the case, federal courts can turn their attention to the question of whether the state’s voter ID law is constitutional.

A 2013 version of the law that Republicans passed over Democratic objections was struck down in federal court for intentionally targeting African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”

After that loss the legislature tried again, passing a similar law in 2018 that Republicans said had enough changes that it should no longer be considered racially discriminatory.

But in 2019 a trial court judge ruled that the law still appeared to be racially motivated. In 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, saying the law should be allowed to stand.

This is the case the U.S. Supreme Court is now considering. But however the justices rule, it is unlikely to be the final word on the state’s voter ID law.

Two other lawsuits are moving forward in state courts. One argues that the law itself is unconstitutional. The other argues that the legislature didn’t have the power to write the law in the first place, due to unconstitutional gerrymandering.

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