By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina's Democratic governor and attorney general on Tuesday withdrew a request for a U.S. Supreme Court review of a state voting law struck down last year by an appeals court that found it intentionally discriminated against African-Americans.
In moving to end the state's defense of the Republican-backed 2013 law, Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein said they also discharged outside counsel hired to defend North Carolina.
The immediate impact on the case was not clear. The governor's office said the state Board of Elections, its individual members and its executive director remained in the case, which was appealed to the Supreme Court in December.
The board's three Republicans and two Democrats are likely to discuss the issue during their meeting on Wednesday, board spokesman Patrick Gannon said.
The Supreme Court is due to discuss whether to take the case on March 3.
The Democratic state officials and the civil rights groups that challenged the law would be keen to avoid the Supreme Court taking up the case because there is a chance the statute could be revived.
The court is currently divided 4-4 on ideological grounds, with four liberals and four conservatives. Republican President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill a vacant seat, conservative appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, could well break a tie if the high court were to hear the case, if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
In August, the high court split 4-4 on whether to reinstate key portions of the law prior to last year’s election, with the four conservative justices voting in favor.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July overturned the state law, which, among other things, required voters to show photo identification when casting ballots and scaled back early voting.
"We need to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, not harder, and I will not continue to waste time and money appealing this unconstitutional law,” said Cooper, who took office in January after defeating the Republican incumbent.
Republican legislative leaders criticized the move and said they expected the courts to reject the Democrats' request.
"Roy Cooper’s and Josh Stein’s desperate and politically-motivated stunt to derail North Carolina’s voter ID law is not only illegal, it also raises serious questions about whetherthey’ve allowed their own personal and political prejudices and conflicts of interest to cloud their professional judgment," Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement.
North Carolina passed the law weeks after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in June 2013 to eliminate a requirement that states with a history of discrimination receive federal approval before changing election laws.
The law's supporters said it was needed to prevent voter fraud.
The NAACP civil rights group and individual voters sued to block the law, arguing that it disproportionately burdened African-Americans and Hispanics, who are more likely than whites to lack acceptable forms of identification.
(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley)