In a trio of opinions totaling 436 pages, the N.C. Supreme Court has restored North Carolina’s voter ID law, ruled that state courts cannot consider partisan gerrymandering claims, and ended voting for felons who have not completed their sentences.
Each ruling issued Friday divided the court, 5-2. Republican justices supported the majority opinions. Democratic justices dissented.
In Holmes v. Moore, the voter ID case, the state’s highest court reversed a Dec. 16 ruling from the outgoing Supreme Court, which then had a 4-3 Democratic majority. That court had affirmed a trial court’s decision to throw out the 2018 voter identification law as racially discriminatory.
Voters replaced two Democratic justices with Republicans last November, a little more than a month before the state Supreme Court’s voter ID decision. Those new justices took office Jan. 1. The new court granted a rehearing of the case in March.
The new decision reverses that decision. “There is no legal recourse available for vindication of political interests, but this Court is yet again confronted with ‘a partisan legislative disagreement that has spilled out . . . into the courts.’ This Court once again stands as a bulwark against that spillover, so that even in the most divisive cases, we reassure the public that our state’s courts follow the law, not the political winds of the day,” wrote Justice Phil Berger Jr. for the majority.
The General Assembly enacted the voter ID law, originally Senate Bill 824, just weeks after voters decided in November 2018 to place an ID requirement in the state constitution.
“It is well settled that the proper exercise of judicial power requires great deference to acts of the General Assembly, as the legislature’s enactment of the law is the sacrosanct fulfillment of the people’s will,” Berger wrote. “With that basic principle in mind, we are confronted here with a simple question: does S.B. 824 violate the meaningful protections set forth in Article I, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution? Because it does not, we reverse and remand to the trial court for dismissal of this action with prejudice.”
Dismissal “with prejudice” means the ruling is final. The Supreme Court used the same language in all three election-related cases decided Friday.
Voter ID opponents cannot refile the suit. This could mean voter ID would return for the next round of elections. A federal lawsuit challenging the same voter ID law remains active. No action has taken place in the case since July 2022.
“The people of North Carolina overwhelmingly support voter identification and other efforts to promote greater integrity and confidence in our elections,” Berger wrote. “Subjective tests and judicial sleight of hand have systematically thwarted the will of the people and the intent of the legislature. But no court exists for the vindication of political interests, and judges exceed constitutional boundaries when they act as a super-legislature.”
“This Court has traditionally stood against the waves of partisan rulings in favor of the fundamental principle of equality under the law,” Berger added. “We recommit to that
fundamental principle and begin the process of returning the judiciary to its rightful
place as ‘the least dangerous’ branch.”
“Plaintiffs here have failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that S.B. 824 was enacted with discriminatory intent or that the law actually produces a meaningful disparate impact along racial lines.”
Writing for the two Democrats on the court, Justice Michael Morgan accused Republican colleagues of playing politics with their ruling. He complained about their “identical politically saturated legal philosophies.”
“[T]he five justices which constitute the majority here have emboldened themselves to
infuse partisan politics brazenly into the outcome of the present case,” Morgan wrote. “This majority’s extraordinarily rare allowance of a petition for rehearing in this case, mere weeks after this newly minted majority was positioned on this Court and mere months after this case was already decided by a previous composition of members of this Court, spoke volumes.”
“My consternation with the majority’s abrupt departure from this Court’s institutionalized stature — historically grounded in this forum’s own reverence for its caselaw precedent, its deference to the rule of law, and its severance from partisan politics — is colossal,” Morgan added.
In Harper v. Hall, the new 5-2 opinion rejected the old Democrat-majority court’s previous decisions throwing out Republican-drawn election maps for congressional and legislative races. The new majority decided that state courts will no longer hear lawsuits challenging election maps because of claims of excessive partisanship.
As with the voter ID case, this decision followed a March rehearing of a case decided by the outgoing court in December.
“Our constitution expressly assigns the redistricting authority to the General Assembly subject to explicit limitations in the text. Those limitations do not address partisan gerrymandering,” wrote Chief Justice Paul Newby. “It is not within the authority of this Court to amend the constitution to create such limitations on a responsibility that is textually assigned to another branch.”
“Furthermore, were this Court to create such a limitation, there is no judicially discoverable or manageable standard for adjudicating such claims,” Newby added. “The constitution does not require or permit a standard known only to four justices. Finally, creating partisan redistricting standards is rife with policy decisions. Policy decisions belong to the legislative branch, not the judiciary.”
Newby pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause. In that case, the nation’s highest court decided that federal courts would no longer consider partisan gerrymandering cases.
“Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States reviewed similar claims under the Federal Constitution and determined that ‘excessive’ partisan gerrymandering claims involve nonjusticiable, political questions,” Newby wrote. “We find the Supreme Court’s analysis in Rucho insightful and persuasive. For all these reasons, we hold that partisan gerrymandering claims present a political question that is nonjusticiable under the North Carolina Constitution.”
Justice Anita Earls wrote for the dissenting Democrats. “When the General Assembly attempted to enact a new extreme partisan gerrymander … following the release of 2020 census data, this Court rejected the idea that the voters of this state must be hostage to the partisan objectives of the ruling party in the General Assembly,” Earls wrote. “And for a brief window in time, the power of deciding who is elected to office was given to the people, as required by the state constitution.”
“Today, the majority strips the people of this right; it tells North Carolinians that the state constitution and the courts cannot protect their basic human right to self-governance and self-determination,” Earls added. “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.”
Based on the earlier Supreme Court rulings, legislators had planned to draw new maps this year for 2024 elections to Congress and the state Senate. They also had indicated their plans to draw a new state House map. The new Harper v. Hall decision is likely to affect those plans.
Unlike the other two cases, the decision Friday in Community Success Initiative v. Moore does not overrule an earlier ruling from the outgoing Democrat-led state Supreme Court. The current court heard oral arguments in February.
Plaintiffs in that case challenged the law restoring voting rights to N.C. felons. Activists hoped to open the door to voting by as many as 56,000 felons who had completed active prison time but had not completed their full sentences.
A split 2-1 trial court ruling, upheld by a split 2-1 state Appeals Court ruling, allowed felons to register and vote in last November’s election.
Now the state’s highest court has overruled those lower courts.
“Our state constitution ties voting rights to the obligation that all citizens have to refrain from criminal misconduct,” wrote Justice Trey Allen, one of the court’s two newest members. “Specifically, it denies individuals with felony convictions the right to vote unless their citizenship rights are restored ‘in the manner prescribed by law.’ No party to this litigation disputes the validity of Article VI, Section 2(3) of the North Carolina Constitution.”
“This case is therefore not about whether disenfranchisement should be a consequence
of a felony conviction,” Allen added. “The state constitution says that it must be, and we are bound by that mandate.”
Plaintiffs instead challenged laws approved in the 1970s to set the rules for felons to regain voting rights. “The evidence does not prove that legislators intended their reforms … in the early 1970s to disadvantage African Americans, nor does it substantiate plaintiffs’ other constitutional claims,” Allen wrote. “It is not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process. We therefore reverse the trial court’s final order and judgment.”
“The General Assembly did not engage in racial discrimination or otherwise violate the North Carolina Constitution by requiring individuals with felony convictions to complete their sentences — including probation, parole, or post-release supervision — before they regain the right to vote,” Allen added.
Earls wrote again for the dissenting Democratic justices. “The majority’s decision in this case will one day be repudiated on two grounds,” she wrote. “First, because it seeks to justify the denial of a basic human right to citizens and thereby perpetuates a vestige of slavery, and second, because the majority violates a basic tenant of appellate review by ignoring the facts as found by the trial court and substituting its own.”
It’s not clear from the new opinion how the ruling will affect felons who participated in the 2022 general election.
Legislative leaders responded to the three rulings.
“For years plaintiffs and activist courts have manipulated our Constitution to achieve policy outcomes that could not be won at the ballot box,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, in an emailed statement. “Today’s rulings affirm that our Constitution cannot be exploited to fit the political whims of left-wing Democrats.”
“Today is a great day for North Carolina and the rule of law,” said N.C. Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley. “The people of North Carolina rejected the blatant activism of the progressive judges by electing a strong majority of conservative Justices. These rulings are a big step toward restoring respect for the Constitution and taking politics out of the courtroom.”