Federal voter ID lawsuit sees first court filing in nearly a year

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  • A federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's 2018 voter ID law has had its first court filing since July 2022.
  • ID critics have a new "counsel of record" in the case. She filed paperwork Thursday in U.S. District Court.
  • After an April N.C. Supreme Court ruling upholding voter ID, the State Board of Elections is preparing to implement the ID requirement for this year's municipal elections.
  • A June 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision ensured that Republican legislative leaders will be able to intervene to defend the voter ID law in federal court.

As N.C. officials prepare to implement a new photo voter identification requirement for this year’s municipal elections, a federal lawsuit challenging the state voter ID law has seen its first new development since last summer.

Plaintiffs challenging the law have a new “counsel of record” in the federal case. Kathleen Roblez of the left-of-center activist group Forward Justice filed paperwork Thursday in U.S. District Court.

Her notice of appearance marked the first new court filing since July 27, 2022, in the case N.C. State Conference of the NAACP v. Cooper. Roblez’s filing substituted the name Alan Hirsch for Gov. Roy Cooper as the lead defendant. Hirsch chairs the State Board of Elections.

Roblez’s filing represents the first movement in the case since the N.C. Supreme Court threw out a state lawsuit challenging voter ID. A 5-2 ruling from the Republican-led state high court on April 28 overturned a December 2022 ruling from the same court. Democrats had held a 4-3 Democratic majority in December. Both rulings involved party-line votes from the justices.

The latest decision allowed the state’s 2018 voter ID requirement to take effect for this year’s elections. The State Board of Elections responded to the April ruling by making preparations to implement the ID law for 2023.

Lawmakers approved the 2018 law weeks after N.C. voters enshrined an ID requirement in the state constitution. That amendment has faced its own legal challenge in state courts. A case targeting the amendment sits now in Wake County Superior Court. The voter ID law can stand or fall legally regardless of the case challenging the state constitutional amendment.

ID opponents have not yet filed any new paperwork in federal court to try to block the ID law from moving forward.

Forward Justice filed the suit in December 2018 on behalf of the state NAACP and local NAACP chapters.

A year later, on Dec. 31, 2019, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs issued a preliminary injunction blocking the voter ID law from taking effect. In a 60-page opinion, Biggs cited North Carolina’s “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression.”

Parts of the law “were impermissibly motivated, at least in part, by discriminatory intent,” wrote Biggs, appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama.

Nearly one year later, a three-judge 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously reversed Biggs’ decision. Appellate judges determined that the trial court had “abused its discretion” when granting the injunction.

The 4th Circuit judges said Biggs was wrong to factor North Carolina’s earlier 2013 voter ID measure into her decision about the 2018 law.

“The district court here considered the General Assembly’s discriminatory intent in passing the 2013 Omnibus Law to be effectively dispositive of its intent in passing the 2018 Voter-ID Law,” wrote Judge Julius Richardson, an appointee of President Donald Trump. “In doing so, it improperly flipped the burden of proof at the first step of its analysis and failed to give effect to the Supreme Court’s presumption of legislative good faith. These errors fatally infected its finding of discriminatory intent. And when that finding crumbles, the preliminary injunction falls with it.”

Judges Marvin Quattlebaum, a Trump appointee, and Pamela Harris, an Obama appointee, joined Richardson’s opinion.

By the time the 4th Circuit struck down Biggs’ injunction, state courts had moved to block the 2018 voter ID law. The state Supreme Court’s April decision removed the final state court roadblock against voter ID.

While the federal case has yet to proceed to trial, it has seen one major development since appellate judges’ 2020 decision.

In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, by an 8-1 vote, that Republican legislative leaders would be allowed to intervene in the case. Biggs had rejected lawmakers’ attempt to take part in court proceedings. The 4th Circuit also ruled against legislative intervention.

The nation’s highest court determined that Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, should have the opportunity to represent legislative interests in defending the law.

“[F]ederal courts should rarely question that a State’s interests will be practically impaired or impeded if its duly authorized representatives are excluded from participating in federal litigation challenging state law,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the majority. “To hold otherwise would not only evince disrespect for a State’s chosen means of diffusing its sovereign powers among various branches and officials. It would not only risk turning a deaf federal ear to voices the State has deemed crucial to understanding the full range of its interests. It would encourage plaintiffs to make strategic choices to control which state agents they will face across the aisle in federal court.”

“It would tempt litigants to select as their defendants those individual officials they consider most sympathetic to their cause or most inclined to settle favorably and quickly,” Gorsuch added. “All of which would risk a hobbled litigation rather than a full and fair adversarial testing of the State’s interests and arguments.”