North Carolina's highest court opened the door Friday to nullifying a voter ID mandate approved by citizens in 2018 because the lawmakers who put it on the ballot were elected from districts tainted by illegal racial bias.
However, the North Carolina Supreme Court stopped short of striking down the voter ID requirement and another constitutional amendment that limited income tax rates, ruling that a lower court must gather more evidence on the measures before tossing them out.
Voter identification is not currently required in North Carolina, because it's held up in separate litigation regarding state voter laws. Friday's ruling doesn't alter that situation.
The long-awaited ruling, decided 4-3 by the court's Democratic majority, is a victory for the state NAACP, which sued Republican legislative leaders. It undoes a state appeals court ruling that upheld the amendments, and it sends the case back to Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins, who previously struck down the amendments.
Friday's ruling decried that the Republican-controlled legislature proceeded with putting the constitutional amendments on the ballot despite the fact that more than two dozen districts had been found to be tainted by 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 with the knowledge that 28 of its districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered and that more than two-thirds of all legislative districts needed to be redrawn to achieve compliance with the Equal Protection Clause, chose to initiate the process of amending the state constitution.”
However, the opinion said that before taking a step as serious as undoing constitutional amendments approved by voters, the trial court must gather more evidence on whether leaving the amendments in place would allow improperly elected legislators to escape accountability, further exclude voters from the democratic process or amount to continued discrimination.
In a dissent, Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote that the ruling by the court's Democratic majority “unilaterally reassigns constitutional duties and declares that the will of the judges is superior to the will of the people of North Carolina.”
Federal courts had declared that nearly 30 districts used in the 2016 elections were unlawful racial gerrymanders. Ultimately over 100 of the 170 General Assembly seats had to be redrawn. Judges had permitted lawmakers elected in 2016 to serve in the General Assembly for the next two-year session. Still, the plaintiffs' lawyers said that this edition of the legislature was illegally constituted, so the amendment was unlawfully on the ballot and should be canceled.
In 2020, a split state Court of Appeals panel declared that such a threshold for 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 struck down. The appeals court overturned Collins' 2019 ruling that struck down the amendments and found the General Assembly had exceeded its authority to place the referenda.
The state NAACP hailed Friday's ruling as limiting an improperly elected legislature's ability to change the state constitution.
“Rigging elections by trampling on the rights of Black voters has consequences. No legislature has the right to use racially gerrymandered maps — infecting more than two-thirds of the districts of this state — to steal power from the people to change our state's constitution,” said state NAACP President Deborah Maxwell in a statement.
The NAACP sought narrow relief — that a General Assembly elected from illegally distorted boundaries lose its ability to propose constitutional referenda. Unlike legislation, it argued, a referendum needs support from three-fifths of the members of each legislative chamber to go on the ballot and isn't subject to gubernatorial veto.
Republican state House Speaker Tim Moore issued a statement arguing that Friday's ruling was a political decision.
“This party-line ruling is in direct contradiction to the rule of law and the will of the voters. The people of North Carolina will not stand for the blatant judicial activism and misconduct that has seized our state's highest court, and neither will I,” Moore said.
The divided decision further intensifies sharp differences on the court and should bring greater focus on two seats on the statewide ballot this fall. Both are currently held by Democrats, so Republicans need to win one of them to regain a majority.
Friday's ruling didn't block regular state laws that require simple majorities and are subject to a governor's veto. GOP legislators have passed other regular laws lowering taxes and requiring photo identification to vote.
A rule-making law passed in 2018 after the voter ID amendment was approved sought to implement the mandate. Friday's ruling doesn't cancel that law. But it remains unenforceable pending two other lawsuits -- one federal and one state -- challenging current voter ID rules.
A majority on a three-judge panel of trial judges struck down those rules last September, saying the law was rushed through the General Assembly and still intentionally discriminates against Black voters. The state Supreme Court has since agreed to hear this case, too.