EDENTON — This week the N.C. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit addressing the voter ID law state lawmakers approved to implement a state constitutional amendment.
Defenders of Voter ID are asking the high court to overturn a trial court’s ruling that blocked the law, saying it was discriminatory. The law, Senate Bill 824, was passed under mandate from voters, who approved a constitutional amendment for voter ID in 2018 with 55% of the vote. The case was heard at the historic Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton.
“N.C. plaintiffs failed to present evidence that establishes that N.C.’s current voter ID law violates the North Carolina Constitution,” said N.C. Special Deputy Attorney General Mary Carla Babb. “The trial court erred in several aspects of its analysis, and the court should reverse the trial court’s error.”
“Impact is not the sole touchstone of these claims. You have to look at the other aspects, which we did,” argued attorney Jeffrey Loperfido of the left-of-center Southern Coalition for Social Justice, representing plaintiffs challenging the voter ID law.
Questions from Supreme Court justices focused on whether a lower trial court had the authority to throw out the voter’s will, and the process by which lawmakers crafted a bill to implement the constitutional mandate from voters.
“African American voters are more likely than white voters to lack appropriate ID under S.B. 824. Isn’t that a finding of fact by the trial court after hearing all the evidence and conflicting expert witness testimony, based on the evidence?” Associate Justice Anita Earls asked.
Defense lawyers argued that requirements that voters take the step of obtaining a free ID does not necessarily constitute discrimination.
“The case law from other circuits says that it doesn’t have to, as the trial court seemed to believe, eliminate the burden completely because we know that from other case laws the existence of some level of inconvenience in the voting process does not constitute discriminatory impact,” answered Babb.
Plaintiffs argued that despite the voter directive, Republican leadership rushed the bill after the 2018 elections in which they lost a veto-proof supermajority, in order to entrench Republican power in the legislature. Defendants of the bill point to state Sen. Joel Ford, an African American Democrat who co-sponsored it, multiple Democrat amendments to the bill, and the Democrats who voted in favor.
“What is key here is whether people are going to be allowed to vote, because the only way a political party can entrench itself is if its political opponents are not able to vote. The legislation makes sure that everyone can vote. So the notion that this law was passed for partisan entrenchment just does not match up,” argued attorney Peter Patterson. “Five democrats voted for this, four in its final form. Why would any Democrat vote for a law that was meant to entrench Republicans?
The path that the Holmes v. Moore case took to get to the high court on Monday has been controversial.
Back in September 2021, a trial court threw out North Carolina’s voter ID law by a 2-1 vote. Two Democrat judges overruled a Republican colleague in deciding that the ID law was racially discriminatory and violated the N.C. Constitution.
Following the trial court ruling, defenders of voter ID asked the N.C. Court of Appeals to hear their appeal, while plaintiffs asked the state Supreme Court to intervene. The high court voted along party lines last month to hear the case just weeks before the 2022 general election, when two seats on the high court now held by Democrats are up for grabs.
Legislative leaders accused ID opponents of “forum shopping” based on the contrasting partisan compositions of the two appellate courts. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 10-5, on the Appeals Court. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the state Supreme Court.
“In light of the great public interest in the subject matter of this case, the importance of the issues to the constitutional jurisprudence of this State, and the need to reach a final resolution on the merits at the earliest possible opportunity, ” according to the order signed by Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat.
Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote for the three dissenting Republicans. “Once more, the majority expedites the hearing of a case where no jurisprudential reason supports doing so,” Newby wrote.
Nonetheless, questions Monday in the Edenton courtroom from justices indicated frustration from the bench as they pinned legal counsel down on debatable points in their arguments.
“Every voter in North Carolina can vote either with an ID or with this sweeping exception. How is there any kind of impact?” Newby asked of Loperfido.
“Your honor, the alleged constitutional harm is not that any particular voter is not going to be able to vote. That is not the legal standard here,” Loperfido responded. “The harm here under an equal protection standard is that voters are being treated differently and that the fundamental right for certain individuals is burdened in a way that falls disproportionately upon them.”
“If nobody is prevented from voting, how does that show discrimination?” Newby followed up.
“To the extent that they are falling on a particular class that is less able to overcome them because of the history of discrimination and the lasting impact which is poverty and its negative impacts on participation, that is what our disparate impact is showing,” said Loperfido.
North Carolina’s voter ID law also faces a challenge in federal court. In an 8-1 ruling issued in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state legislative leaders had the right to intervene in the federal case to defend voter ID. Originally scheduled for trial in January, that federal case has not yet been rescheduled.