The Supreme Court's recent rulings upholding Indiana's voter ID law and Kentucky's use of lethal injections reflect a subtle but profoundly important shift in how the justices decide constitutional questions. In the past, the court was willing to strike down laws before they went into effect out of concern that the rights of some people might be violated. For example, the justices used that approach to void laws that regulated abortion or restricted pornography on the Internet.
But since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court three years ago, that approach has been cast aside. Broad and sweeping attacks on state laws have met with defeat.
Instead, Roberts and his colleagues have been sending a new, sterner message to legal advocates: Produce evidence that a law has actually violated someone's rights, and name names if you can. Only then might the court rule that a law is unconstitutional for those in the same situation.
The high court's newfound skepticism toward broad legal challenges was on display Monday when the justices, in a 6-3 decision, upheld Indiana's law requiring voters to show photo identification at their polling places.
As with recent rulings rejecting broad challenges to laws on "partial-birth" abortions and lethal injections to carry out the death penalty, the court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their cases. In Indiana, for example, the challengers did not point to a single voter who had been deterred or discouraged from casting a ballot because of the need to obtain a photo identification from the state.
Roberts assigned Justice John Paul Stevens, often the court's strongest liberal voice, to write the lead opinion upholding the law. With a tone of frustration, Stevens said the challengers had "advanced a broad attack on the constitutionality" of the measure by the Indiana Legislature, but failed to muster any hard evidence.
A lawsuit might have focused on elderly and disabled people who do not drive, or those who live in nursing homes. But they are entitled to vote by mail, and therefore do not need the photo ID.
"On the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the [Indiana] statute imposes excessively burdensome requirements on any class of voters," Stevens wrote.