The Pulse

NC Supreme Court issues much-anticipated rulings on voter ID, gerrymandering, and a Confederate statue

By: - December 16, 2022 1:49 pm
The North Carolina Supreme Court building – File photo

The North Carolina Supreme Court handed down more than two dozen rulings on Friday, including a trio dealing with high-profile political controversies. The rulings come just weeks before Republicans Richard Dietz and Trey Allen replace sitting Democratic Associate Justices Samuel Ervin IV and Robin Hudson, and thereby flip the court’s current 4-3 Democratic majority to 5-2 Republican.

Latest voter ID law invalidated

By Kelan Lyons

In Holmes v. Moore, the court ruled that a bill requiring every voter present photo identification when casting a ballot was unconstitutional because lawmakers enacted the legislation “with an impermissible intent to discriminate against African-American voters in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.”

The 58-page opinion written by Associate Justice Anita Earls, a former voting rights attorney, declared the right to vote as paramount to preserving all other civil and political rights, noting that throughout the country’s history the right to cast a ballot has been denied due to a prospective voter’s race.

“The right to vote is a fundamental right, preservative of all other rights,” Earls wrote.

Earls acknowledged that North Carolina “has a long history of race discrimination generally and race-based voter suppression in particular,” and that laws that suppress African American voters frequently seem race-neutral but still have “profoundly discriminatory effects.”

Such was the case with North Carolina’s voter ID law. Earls’ majority opinion held that the statute “was enacted with discriminatory intent to disproportionately disenfranchise and burden African-American voters in North Carolina.” While the opinion acknowledged that the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 authorizing Voter ID, it also cited the trial court’s finding that voters did not know the specifics of how the law would be implemented before casting their vote because no implementing legislation accompanied the amendment.

Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr., the son of state Senate Republican leader Phil Berger, Sr., wrote the dissent, joined by his Republican colleagues on the high court. Berger rejected the claim that the law was intended to discriminate against any North Carolinians, and that the high court’s majority relied on “a misapplication of relevant case law and on its own inferences to reach a contrary result.”

Berger touted that the underlying voter ID law resulted from a constitutional amendment passed in November 2018, when “the people of North Carolina overwhelmingly amended their constitution to include a voter-ID requirement based upon a simple belief — that would-be voters should be required to identify themselves prior to casting a ballot.” He also said there were protections built into the law, including a provision to give every voter a free form of photo identification so they can vote.

“The majority apparently overlooks the fact that the will of the people is carried out by the legislature,” Berger said, accusing his colleagues of not presuming the law was passed in good faith, since the voter ID law “is far less restrictive than what could have been passed under the plain language of the constitutional amendment.”

In a statement, Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue said he supported voters’ decision to adopt the constitutional amendment requiring voter ID.

“But it is our responsibility as lawmakers to draft enacting legislation that is constitutional and enforceable. Republicans have failed to do that,” he said. “We need to go back to the drawing board, and work in good faith to pass a voter ID law that will pass constitutional muster.”

To read the opinion and dissent, click here.

State Senate map ruled an illegal partisan gerrymander

By Lynn Bonner

The state Senate district map used in this year’s elections is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, the state Supreme Court majority said in an opinion issued Friday.  

The order in the case of Harper v. Hall says a panel of three Superior Court judges should oversee creation of a new Senate district plan that meets constitutional muster.  

In so doing, we expressly and emphatically reaffirm the fundamental right of citizens to vote on equal terms enshrined within our Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, and this Court’s constitutional responsibility and authority to assess legislative compliance therewith,” Justice Robin Hudson wrote for the majority.  

The court upheld the state House districts drawn by the General Assembly as constitutional.  

“The evidence strongly indicates that the RSP [Remedial Senate Plan] creates stark partisan asymmetry in the fundamental right to vote on equal terms,” Hudson wrote.  

The three Republican justices dissented. Referencing the Democratic majority’s acceptance of the remedial House redistricting plan and its rejection of the Senate plan, Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote that the “majority has shaped its analysis to ensure a predetermined outcome.” 

Though the majority opinion calls for changes to the Senate plan, the future of state Supreme Court’s involvement in determining its constitutionality is in serious question. Democrats on the Supreme Court have largely ruled in favor of voters and organizations challenging the redistricting plans, but Republicans will have the court majority starting next year.  

In their dissents, the three Republicans now on the court have agreed with legislative leaders’ lawyers that redistricting questions are political one that judges should not decide.  

Lauren Horsch of Senate leader Phil Berger’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.  

Democratic Senate leader Dan Blue of Wake County said the Senate should fix problems with the map.  

“It is my hope that Republican lawmakers will redraw the legislative maps as needed to remedy gerrymandering; and not use their majority to take advantage of the court decision and broadly redraw legislative maps to their benefit,” Blue said in a statement.  

“We need to fix the problems in these maps, and not create more legal problems. Let’s correct this, move on, and get to work addressing the challenges facing North Carolina families.” 

 Friday’s opinion is a continuation of redistricting cases challenging the House, Senate, and congressional redistricting plans Republicans drew last year. 

The Supreme Court in February ruled that the plans Republicans drew for congressional, state House and state Senate districts were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.  

Legislators drew a new set of plans. The three-judge panel rejected the legislature’s revised congressional plan but accepted its House and Senate plans.  

Both sides appealed.  

Click here to read the ruling.

Removal of Winston-Salem Confederate monument upheld, but door left open to future challenges

By Rob Schofield

In United Daughters of the Confederacy v. City of Winston-Salem, the court examined the controversy surrounding the city of Winston-Salem’s removal of a Confederate monument from a downtown location after it was vandalized on multiple occasions and determined to be a public nuisance.

At issue in the case was whether the Daughters of the Confederacy had “standing” to challenge the decision. The trial court determined (and the Court of Appeals affirmed) that the group lacked standing and dismissed their claim “with prejudice” — an action that effectively barred any future challenges.

In today’s ruling, written by Justice Samuel Ervin, IV, the court held that while the lower courts were correct in determining that the plaintiffs lacked standing, that ruling in and of itself should have barred and further determination on possible future actions, and thus should have led to a dismissal “without prejudice.” The court remanded the case to Forsyth County Superior Court to issue such a ruling.

Click here to read the opinion.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.