RALEIGH, North Carolina (AP) — North Carolina’s highest court on Friday opened the door to overturning a 2018 citizen-approved voter identification warrant because lawmakers who put it on the ballot were elected from districts tainted with illegal racial bias.
However, the North Carolina Supreme Court did not strike down the voter ID requirement and another constitutional amendment that capped income tax rates, ruling that a lower court must gather more evidence on measurements before rejecting them.
Voter ID is currently not required in North Carolina, as it is the subject of a separate dispute over state election laws. Friday’s decision does not change this situation.
The long-awaited decision, rendered 4-3 by the Democratic majority on the court, is a victory for the state NAACP, which sued Republican legislative leaders. It overturns a state appeals court decision that upheld the amendments and returns the case to Wake County Judge G. Bryan Collins, Jr., who previously overturned the amendments.
Friday’s ruling exposed the Republican-controlled Legislature for proceeding to put constitutional amendments on the ballot despite more than two dozen districts found to be tainted with illegal racial bias.
Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Anita Earls noted that “what makes this case so unique is that the General Assembly, acting in the knowledge that twenty-eight of its districts have been unconstitutionally racist and that more two-thirds of all legislative districts were to be redrawn to comply with the Equal Protection Clause, elected to initiate the process of amending the state constitution.
However, the opinion said that before taking such a serious step as reversing the constitutional amendments approved by the voters, the trial court must gather more evidence on whether keeping the amendments in place would allow lawmakers ill-elected from escaping accountability, further excluding voters from the democratic process. or amounts to continued discrimination.
In a dissent, Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote that the court’s Democratic majority decision “unilaterally reallocates constitutional duties and declares that the will of the justices is greater than the will of the people of North Carolina.”
Federal courts had declared nearly 30 districts used in the 2016 election to be illegal racial gerrymanders. In the end, more than 100 of the 170 seats in the General Assembly had to be redistributed. The justices had allowed lawmakers elected in 2016 to sit in the General Assembly for the next two-year session. Yet plaintiffs’ attorneys said this edition of the legislature was illegally constituted, so the amendment was illegally on the ballot and should be struck down.
In 2020, a split state Court of Appeals panel said such a threshold blocking legislative action would cause chaos and confusion by allowing anyone to challenge any conventional legislation approved by a majority of lawmakers whose districts were canceled. The appeals court overturned Collins’ 2019 decision that struck down the amendments and found the General Assembly had exceeded its power to call referenda.
The state’s NAACP hailed Friday’s decision as limiting the ability of an ill-elected legislature to change the state’s constitution.
“Rigging elections by trampling on the rights of black voters has consequences. No legislature has the right to use racist maps – infecting more than 2/3 of the districts in this state – to steal power from the people to change our state’s constitution,” said NAACP President Deborah Maxwell, in a statement.
The NAACP sought a narrow remedy – that a General Assembly elected from illegally distorted boundaries lose its ability to propose constitutional referendums. Unlike legislation, he argued, a referendum needs the support of three-fifths of the members of each legislative chamber to go to a ballot and is not subject to a veto by the governor.
Republican State House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement saying Friday’s decision was a political one.
“This party line decision is in direct contradiction to the rule of law and the will of the voters. The people of North Carolina will not tolerate the blatant activism and judicial misconduct that has gone to our state’s highest court, and neither will I,” Moore said.
Friday’s decision further intensifies stark differences on the ground and is expected to put more emphasis on two seats in the statewide ballot this fall. Both are currently held by Democrats, so Republicans must win one of them to regain a majority.
Friday’s decision did not block regular state laws that require simple majorities and are subject to a governor’s veto. GOP lawmakers passed other regular laws cutting taxes and requiring photo ID to vote.
A prescriptive law passed in 2018 after the Voter ID Amendment was approved was intended to implement the mandate. Friday’s decision does not override that law. But it remains unenforceable pending two more lawsuits — one federal and one state — challenging current voter ID rules.
A majority of a panel of three trial judges struck down those rules in September, saying the law was rushed through the General Assembly and still intentionally discriminates against black voters.
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