WASHINGTON -- A federal court Wednesday upheld South Carolina's voter ID law, overturning its rejection by the U.S. Justice Department.
The three judges said their ruling comes too late for the law to be applied in next month's elections and directed South Carolina election officials to wait until next year before using it. By then, the U.S. Supreme Court might have ruled on a possible appeal from the law's opponents.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed the voter ID measure into law May 18, 2011, praised the ruling as a clear victory for her state.
"Every time the federal government has thrown us a punch, we have fought back," Haley said in a statement. "This win is not just for South Carolina, this is a win for our country."
The unanimous ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was a rebuke of Attorney General Eric Holder, who in December blocked the state law after finding that it violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act because of its discriminatory impact on black voters.
Justice Department officials tried to put the best face on the ruling. They noted that the judges had blocked South Carolina from using the law in the Nov. 6 election.
And they pointed to the judges' indications that the law had been upheld only because state officials, during a contentious weeklong federal trial in August, vowed to implement it more leniently than the law is written.
"The court's pre-clearance of the law for future elections is expressly conditioned on South Carolina's binding promise that all qualified voters without photo ID will still be allowed to vote without additional burden," Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
"If the law -- as modified by South Carolina during the course of the trial -- takes effect for future elections, the attorney general intends to monitor its implementation closely to ensure compliance with the court's order," Iverson said.
The ruling also contradicts an Aug. 30 decision by a different three-judge panel on the same federal bench. That panel rejected Texas' voter ID law, which was similar to the South Carolina law in broad outline but had some key differences.
It was those differences that the judges in the South Carolina case focused on in ratifying the South Carolina law, which the state's Republican-controlled General Assembly had pursued over the objections of African-American and other Democratic legislators.
The three judges said the South Carolina law's "expansive reasonable impediment provision" -- which the Texas law does not have -- and state officials' vow to interpret it liberally will enable voters to cast ballots even if they don't possess one of the five types of photo IDs required by the law.
Under the clause, voters can sign an affidavit citing a "reasonable impediment" to having obtained a photo ID and cast a provisional ballot, which must be counted unless formally challenged.
"(The law) allows citizens with non-photo voter registration cards to still vote without a photo ID so long as they state the reason for not having obtained one," the judges wrote. "It expands the list of qualifying photo IDs that may be used to vote; and it makes it far easier to obtain a qualifying photo ID than it was under pre-existing law."
The NAACP, among several leading civil and voting rights groups that intervened in the case against the South Carolina law, portrayed the ruling as a "partial victory" because it blocks the law from being used next month, when President Barack Obama will seek re-election.
"As we celebrate this small victory, we still must understand that the law, as written, has the potential to disenfranchise thousands of voters in future elections," Jotaka Eaddy, head of the NAACP's voting rights initiative, said in a statement.
The three judges who ruled on the South Carolina law included two appointees of Republican President George W. Bush and one appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton. The Clinton appointee, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in addition to joining the majority ruling, wrote a separate concurring opinion explaining her support for the law.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson hailed the ruling as a vindication of Republican state legislators, whom the law's foes accused of promoting the legislation in order to suppress the votes of African-Americans in South Carolina.
"The fact remains, voter ID laws do not discriminate or disenfranchise," Wilson said. "They ensure integrity at the ballot box."
In a dig at Obama administration civil rights lawyers, Wilson added: "This ruling also affirms South Carolina's voter ID law should have been pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department."
But one of the two Bush appointees who joined Wednesday's ruling, Judge John Bates, defended Holder's original decision to reject the law and noted that state election officials had modified it substantially during the subsequent federal trial.
"It is understandable that the attorney general of the United States, and then the intervenor-defendants in this case, would raise serious concerns about South Carolina's voter photo ID law as it then stood," Bates wrote in a separate concurring opinion.
Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, expressed disappointment with the decision.
"The South Carolina Democratic Party strongly disagrees with the court's opinion and is hopeful that the United States Supreme Court will resolve the differences between the various voter ID cases around the country," Harpootlian said in a statement.
While a number of state voter ID laws have faced legal challenges, the South Carolina and Texas cases claim a high profile because the two states are subject to the restrictions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Under the Voting Rights Act, all appeals of U.S. district court rulings bypass the federal appellate courts and go directly to the Supreme Court. Texas has filed an appeal with the high court, and the major civil rights and voting groups that oppose South Carolina's law may do the same.