The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a group of much-anticipated rulings on Friday in a trio of high-profile cases that will likely have significant impacts on elections and voting rights in the nation’s ninth largest state, and even the partisan make-up of the next U.S. Congress.
Together with recent developments at the General Assembly, where Republicans now hold “veto-proof” supermajorities in both houses thanks to Rep. Tricia Cotham’s party switch, the rulings provide the latest evidence that opponents of the state’s ongoing rightward policy shift retain few, if any, tools for mounting an effective resistance.
Harper v. Hall: High court rules it’s powerless to review partisan gerrymandering
Late in 2022, the then-4-3 Democratic majority of the court ruled in Harper that North Carolina’s legislative and U.S. House districts were extreme partisan gerrymanders that violated several provisions of the state constitution. The court ordered all three redrawn.
After Republicans defeated two Democratic court candidates in the November election — thereby securing a new 5-2 GOP majority — Republican lawmakers sought rehearing in the case. Soon thereafter, the newly configured court granted that motion and at the March 14 oral arguments, the new majority gave strong indications that it would reverse the previous ruling.
Today, in a 146-page opinion authored by Chief Justice Paul Newby, the five Republican justices confirmed those impressions. According to Newby’s ruling: “partisan gerrymandering claims present a political question that is nonjusticiable under the North Carolina Constitution.”
The court dismissed the claims of citizens and nonprofits who had challenged the maps “with prejudice,” and made clear that the current GOP majorities at the General Assembly are, at least as far as the state courts are concerned, free to draw maps that further entrench their own power in the legislature and dramatically alter the composition of the state’s congressional delegation.
Politico reported shortly after the ruling was issued that “This sets up a process that allows national Republicans to expand their majority in the House of Representatives by as many as four seats.”
Newby’s opinion drew a scathing 71-page dissent (starting at page 147) from Justices Anita Earls, that was joined by Justice Michael Morgan. In it, she wrote:
“Today, the majority strips the people of [the fundamental right to vote on equal terms]; it tells North Carolinians that the state constitution and the courts cannot protect their basic human right to self-governance and self-determination. In so doing, the majority ignores the uncontested truths about the intentions behind partisan gerrymandering and erects an unconvincing façade that only parrots democratic values in an attempt to defend its decision.”
“I dissent from this Court’s majority opinion and its shameful manipulation of fundamental principles of our democracy and the rule of law. I look forward to the day when commitment to the constitutional principles of free elections and equal protection of the laws are upheld and the abuses committed by the majority are recognized for what they are, permanently relegating them to the annals of this Court’s darkest moments. I have no doubt that day will come.”
The ruling immediately drew bitter criticism from an array of Democratic officials. House Minority Leader Robert Reives said, “Today’s decision by the Supreme Court of North Carolina further erodes the trust North Carolinians have in fair elections. Our state needs independent redistricting to ensure that voters can choose their politicians rather than politicians choosing their voters.”
Meanwhile, Attorney general Josh Stein called the ruling “devastating” and “a blow to our democracy.”
In contrast, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Sr. lauded the ruling, saying, “For years plaintiffs and activist courts have manipulated our Constitution to achieve policy outcomes that could not be won at the ballot box. Today’s rulings affirm that our Constitution cannot be exploited to fit the political whims of left-wing Democrats.”
Holmes v. Moore: Voter ID law upheld
As in Harper, today’s ruling in Holmes v. Moore involves the rehearing of a decision rendered in late 2022 by the court’s previous 4-3 Democratic majority. At issue was the long and hotly contested matter of a state law requiring North Carolinians to provide photo identification in order to vote.
The challenged law was enacted by a lame duck General Assembly a week before Christmas in 2018, soon after voters approved a proposed constitutional amendment on the subject, but before a newly elected General Assembly (one that would no longer feature veto-proof Republican supermajorities) was seated in January.
The statute was immediately challenged by civil and voting rights advocates who argued that it unconstitutionally discriminated against African American and American Indian voters in at least a half-dozen ways.
In today’s ruling, authored by Justice Phil Berger, Jr. — the son of the state Senate leader — the court’s GOP majority upheld the law.
After calling it “one of the least restrictive voter identification laws in the United States” and detailing the provisions in the law that provide several exceptions to the general rule that citizens will be required to show valid photo identification in order to vote, the majority held that the challengers of the law had not met their burden to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) the law was enacted with discriminatory intent on the part of the legislature, and (2) the law actually produces a meaningful disparate impact along racial lines.”
In dissent (go to page 55), Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Earls, excoriated the majority for so rapidly overturning recently established precedent (which he characterized as a blatant form of “judicial activism”), rejected its application of a “beyond reasonable doubt” standard to equal protection cases as placing an impossible and unjustified burden on plaintiffs, and accused the majority of substituting its own fact finding for that of the trial court.
Community Success Initiative v. Moore: Voting rights of people on parole struck down
As NC Newsline reported in February, CSI v. Moore deals with the issue of whether a state law that requires people convicted of felonies to complete the terms of their probation, parole or some other form of supervision in order to regain their right to vote is constitutional.
The decision — which also fell 5-2 along party lines — impacts more than 50,000 people. In a previous ruling, the trial court found that the underlying law disproportionately harms African Americans by locking them out of the voting booth.
Friday’s majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Trey Allen, a Republican elected to the Supreme Court last November, rejected that lower court ruling. Allen disputed the statistical evidence and said reforms passed by lawmakers in the 1970s “made it easier for eligible felons of all races to regain their voting rights.”
“It is not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process,” Allen wrote.
As in Harper v. Hall, Justice Earls (joined by Justice Morgan) used her dissent (go to page 72), to, among other things, blast the majority for what she called its “illegitimate and erroneous interpretation of the free elections clause” and failing to recognize and acknowledge what she said was the obvious objective of the law in question “to tamper with election outcomes [by barring] a particular class of voters from exercising their right to vote because they are deemed less desirable than other members of society.”
Dennis Gaddy, the director of Community Success Initiative, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement that “Future generations will remember today as the day that democracy was gutted in North Carolina and voter suppression re-emerged in the Supreme Court. Stripping away the right to vote from over 56,000 people who had finally gotten their voices back clearly demonstrates just how dedicated our officials are to silencing the people whose rights they are supposed to protect.”
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