Even as N.C. officials prepare to implement a photo voter identification requirement for elections taking place later this year, the long-term fate of voter ID remains unclear.

But a unanimous December 2020 ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could mean good news for the ID requirement.

Yes, voters endorsed photo ID in 2018. With 55% of the vote and a winning margin of more than 400,000 in that year’s general election, the people of North Carolina decided to enshrine a photo ID requirement within the state constitution.

This April, more than four years after voters had their say, the state Supreme Court threw out earlier court rulings against the state’s ID plan. The court’s five Republican justices outvoted two Democratic colleagues. The 5-2 majority determined that a 2018 law implementing voters’ ID mandate complied with the Constitution.

Yet that decision does not mark the end of the legal story.

A federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s voter ID law has been lingering in the courts for nearly 4 ½ years. Plaintiffs recently asked U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs to set a status conference in the case. Their goal is to schedule a trial that could end up blocking voter ID again.

Biggs’ previous rulings offer no comfort to ID supporters. In 2019, on New Year’s Eve, the judge granted ID critics a preliminary injunction against voter ID. Her 60-page opinion cited North Carolina’s “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression.”

Parts of the law “were impermissibly motivated, at least in part, by discriminatory intent,” wrote Biggs, appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama.

It’s unlikely that Biggs’ opinion about voter ID has changed since Dec. 31, 2019. What has changed is the 4th Circuit’s involvement in the case. Nearly a year after Biggs’ missive, a unanimous 4th Circuit panel struck down her preliminary injunction.

The three appellate judges also chastised Biggs for her ruling.

Biggs’ trial court had “abused its discretion” in granting a preliminary injunction, wrote Judge Julius Richardson, an appointee of President Donald Trump.

Judge Marvin Quattlebaum, another Trump appointee, joined Richardson’s opinion. So did Judge Pamela Harris, an Obama appointee.

All three appellate judges agreed Biggs was wrong to base her decision about the 2018 law on an earlier N.C. election law from 2013. Federal courts threw out the 2013 law, which lumped voter ID in with other election procedural changes.

“The district court here considered the General Assembly’s discriminatory intent in passing the 2013 Omnibus Law to be effectively dispositive of its intent in passing the 2018 Voter-ID Law,” Richardson wrote. “In doing so, it improperly flipped the burden of proof at the first step of its analysis and failed to give effect to the Supreme Court’s presumption of legislative good faith. These errors fatally infected its finding of discriminatory intent. And when that finding crumbles, the preliminary injunction falls with it.”

The Appeals Court determined that Biggs had ignored a U.S. Supreme Court precedent in a 2018 case called Abbott v. Perez. At the time of Biggs’ decision, the high-court ruling was less than two years old.

“Abbott could not be more clear in allocating the burden of proof and applying the presumption of good faith,” Richardson wrote. “Yet the district court failed to hold the Challengers to their burden of proving the General Assembly’s discriminatory intent. And it failed to apply — or even mention — the presumption of legislative good faith to which the General Assembly was entitled.”

Richardson labeled Biggs’ action “an unmistakable error.”

“The outcome hinges on the answer to a simple question: How much does the past matter?” Richardson wrote. “To the district court, the North Carolina General Assembly’s recent discriminatory past was effectively dispositive of the Challengers’ claims here. But the Supreme Court directs differently.”

“A legislature’s past acts do not condemn the acts of a later legislature, which we must presume acts in good faith,” the 4th Circuit opinion added. “So because we find that the district court improperly disregarded this principle by reversing the burden of proof and failing to apply the presumption of legislative good faith, we reverse.”

There are significant differences between a trial on the merits of the voter ID lawsuit and the request for a preliminary injunction. Yet the 4th Circuit offered Biggs a clear warning.

She can’t rely on history to presume that the 2018 General Assembly acted in bad faith. Nothing about past legislation makes the 2018 voter ID law unconstitutional.

Those ground rules could help the long-term viability of North Carolina’s photo ID requirement.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.