Federal court schedules April 2024 trial in felon voting case

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • A federal court has scheduled an April 2024 trial in a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's felon voting restrictions.
  • Felon advocates turned their attention back to their three-year-old federal case after an April setback at the N.C. Supreme Court. A 5-2 ruling from that court upheld the state's felon re-enfranchisement law as constitutional.
  • If the federal court's timeline holds, felons who have not completed their full sentences would be unable to take part in this year's municipal elections or the March 5 primaries. Participation in the 2024 general election could depend on the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

A federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s restrictions against felon voting is scheduled to go to trial in April 2024. If that timeline holds, felons would be unable to vote in this year’s municipal elections or next year’s March 5 primaries.

Participation in the 2024 general election could depend on the outcome of the case, titled N.C. A. Philip Randolph Institute v. N.C. State Board of Elections.

The clerk for the U.S. District Court in North Carolina’s Middle District issued a notice Tuesday setting a tentative April 1 date in Winston-Salem for a bench trial. That announcement arrived five days after plaintiffs filed a new motion in the case, which started nearly three years ago.

April 1 marks the earliest possible date for a trial, according to the notice. Other cases will appear on the same court calendar. The court will advise lawyers about the actual trial date closer to April. Tuesday’s notice calls on lawyers to submit motions and briefs by March.

Critics of North Carolina’s felon voting restrictions turned their attention back to federal court, less than two months after the N.C. Supreme Court rejected a challenge of the state’s felon voting law.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a motion Thursday in U.S. District Court. The group is seeking summary judgment on behalf of plaintiffs who started a legal challenge in September 2020. The lawsuit asks a federal judge to “invalidate” N.C. General Statute § 163-275(5).

The law makes it a Class I felony “For any person convicted of a crime which excludes the person from the right of suffrage, to vote at any primary or election without having been restored to the right of citizenship in due course and by the method provided by law.”

“The Court should invalidate North Carolina General Statute § 163-275(5) because it violates both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,” according to the latest court filing.

Opponents label the felon voting restriction the “Strict Liability Voting Law.” It “imposes strict-liability, felony-level criminal penalties on citizens who vote while on parole, probation, or post-release supervision for a felony conviction — even if they mistakenly believe they are eligible to vote. The Law cannot withstand Fourteenth Amendment scrutiny,” the brief added.

“The Strict Liability Voting Law is an unconstitutional trap for the unwary,” felon voting advocates argued. “In fact, the State Board’s designee conceded at his deposition that ‘it’s absolutely possible’ prospective voters could be confused. The undisputed record also shows that county prosecutors have interpreted and enforced the Law inconsistently. While some prosecutors have charged individuals who mistakenly voted before completing their post- release supervision, others have declined to prosecute individuals where there was no evidence of intent. The Law should be struck down as void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause.”

The latest court filing focuses on an 1877 version of the felon voting law. It offers a passing reference to amendments as recently as 1973 that have made it easier for felons to regain voting rights after completing their sentences. The document references a state constitutional provision related to felon voting restrictions. Yet the suit does not target the state constitution.

Federal court action follows felon voting advocates’ April 28 setback in North Carolina’s highest court.

Plaintiffs in a case called Community Success Initiative v. Moore had challenged felon voting restrictions through the state court system. Activists hoped to open the door to voting for 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 decision, allowed felons to register and vote in last November’s election.

The state’s highest court 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 for the 5-2 majority. “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.

Justice Anita Earls wrote 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.”