The N.C. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 2 in a case that could determine the future of felon voting in North Carolina. It’s among the first cases that will be considered by the court’s new 5-2 Republican majority.
Supporters of felon voting have said the case could affect 56,000 potential voters.
The state’s highest court will return to the bench on Jan. 31. That’s the latest opening date for oral arguments since 2017. That year the court waited until Feb. 13 to hear in-person arguments from attorneys in contested cases.
In Community Success Initiative v. Moore, the state Supreme Court could determine whether felons on probation, parole, and post-release supervision will remain eligible to vote in future N.C. elections.
Felons in those categories were allowed to register and vote in November’s general election thanks to lower-court rulings.
A split trial court voted 2-1 last March to throw out the 1973 state law that set conditions for felons to have voting rights restored after completing their sentences. That trial court panel would have opened voter registration up to felons immediately.
But a split 2-1 ruling from the N.C. Court of Appeals in April blocked felon voting in elections scheduled for May and July. The same ruling open the door for felons to participate in the November general election.
The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. But in October the high court rejected felon voting advocates’ plea to hear oral arguments in the case this year. Legislative leaders defending the felon voting law in court had objected to plaintiffs’ request for a “breakneck argument schedule.”
Court rulings in the case to date have generated party-line divisions. At the trial-court level, Democratic Judge Keith Gregory and unaffiliated Judge Lisa Bell voted to throw out the felon voting law, while Republican Judge John Dunlaw dissented.
At the Appeals Court, Democratic Judges John Arrowood and Allegra Collins voted for the order allowing felons to vote in November. Republican Judge Jefferson Griffin dissented.
The case has pitted left-of-center advocacy groups supporting felon voting against Republican legislative leaders defending the 1973 law. The General Assembly approved the law at a time when Democrats dominated both legislative chambers.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 13-1 is the state law, last revised in 1973, that spells out the process for felons to regain voting rights.
“The North Carolina Constitution provides that ‘[n]o person adjudged guilty of a felony … shall be permitted to vote unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law,’” according to a September brief from legislative leaders. “Today, Section 13-1 is that re-enfranchisement law. And Plaintiffs are challenging only that law, not the constitutional provision that disenfranchises felons or the statute that criminalizes felon voting.”
In a Sept. 9 court filing, state lawmakers rebutted plaintiffs’ arguments in the case.
“On the merits, Plaintiffs’ claim that Section 13-1 was racially motivated hinges upon tying Section 13-1 to racial animus that they contend surrounded the effort to add felon disenfranchisement to the North Carolina constitution in 1876 and codify that policy in statute in 1877,” according to legislators’ brief. “What Plaintiffs cannot escape, however, is that the re-enfranchisement statute — the predecessor to Section 13-1 that Plaintiffs challenge — was not amended in the 1870s but rather retained the form it had taken since 1840 — before African Americans had the right to vote.”
“Therefore, even if Plaintiffs theoretically could succeed by tarring the civil rights reformers who enacted the 1970s reforms with what came before (and they cannot), such a gambit would not work here. A re-enfranchisement law enacted before African Americans had the right to vote cannot possibly have been motivated by discrimination against African Americans. Plaintiffs also cannot escape that every amendment to the felon re-enfranchisement law since 1840 has been in the direction of greater liberalization, and the form Section 13-1 takes today is the result of reform efforts by civil rights stalwarts.”
“Once the focus is on re-enfranchisement, rather than disenfranchisement, Plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination fall apart,” legislative leaders argue. “Accepting Plaintiffs’ other arguments for invalidating Section 13-1 would require this Court to find that felons have a fundamental right to vote, that elections without them are not ‘free,’ and that insisting felons pay their debt to society before rejoining the electorate is the equivalent of a poll-tax or property qualification. No such findings are possible because the North Carolina Constitution itself disenfranchises felons, subject to any re-enfranchisement law the General Assembly may in its discretion enact.”
Once the Supreme Court hears arguments in February, there is no deadline for a decision.