In a rational world, the debate over voter ID laws would be ended by the eloquent, incisive and angry opinion issued late last week by U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner of Chicago in a case concerning Wisconsin. But this isn’t a rational world. So not only will the debate continue, but Posner’s opinion failed even to sway his fellow judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court split 5-5 on Posner’s request for an en banc — that is, full court — rehearing of the Wisconsin case, in which a three-judge panel already had cleared the state’s ID law to go into effect for next month’s election. That meant Posner’s request was turned down and his opinion was in the nature of a dissent. As it happens, the Supreme Court has stepped in and suspended the Wisconsin law, probably invalidating it for the upcoming polls. But Posner’s 30-page dissent, laid out in his typical lucid and direct manner, is as exacting an examination as you’re likely to find of why voter ID laws are corrupt and iniquitous, and why their usual rationale — to combat voter fraud — is a lie.
Before walking through Posner’s opinion, a few words about why he’s important. Posner, 75, is no wooly-headed liberal, but a card-carrying conservative who was appointed to the circuit bench by Ronald Reagan in 1981. He’s widely regarded as the smartest jurist in the federal judiciary, and was identified in 2000 by Fred Shapiro of Yale Law School as the most-cited legal scholar of all time.
While still unquestionably conservative, Posner has been moving away from Republican orthodoxy on many issues, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that today’s Republicans and conservatives have moved away from his principles. You can get a taste of that from his opinion last month overturning gay-marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin, finding that their grounds for such discrimination “are not only conjectural; they are totally implausible.” For a taste of how Posner treats ill-prepared lawyers in court, listen to these clips from the oral arguments in that gay-marriage case, and thank your lucky stars you weren’t the attorneys tasked with defending the bans.
Posner’s dissent in the Wisconsin voter ID case is especially telling, because he wrote the so-called Crawford decision in 2007 upholding Indiana’s voter ID law, in which he was upheld by the Supreme Court. But he has since recanted. In a 2013 book, he accepted the view that such laws are properly regarded as “a means of voter suppression rather than fraud prevention.” That’s the view that informs his latest opinion.