Hearing scheduled Nov. 21 in federal voter ID lawsuit

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  • A hearing scheduled Nov. 21 at the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem could help determine the course of a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's photo voter identification law.
  • Voter ID critics are seeking a February trial in their case. Legislative leaders and the State Board of Elections object to that request.
  • The 2018 voter ID law remains in effect for this year's municipal elections. The federal lawsuit could affect the ID requirement for 2024 elections.

Supporters and critics of North Carolina’s photo voter identification law will head to Winston-Salem’s federal courthouse on Nov. 21. A hearing scheduled that day could determine how a federal lawsuit against voter ID moves forward.

ID opponents have asked a federal judge to schedule a February trial in the case. Legislative leaders and the State Board of Elections oppose the request.

Elections officials have enforced the new photo voter ID requirement for this year’s municipal elections. But opponents hope the federal courts will block voter ID before the 2024 elections.

Plaintiffs led by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP filed a motion on Oct. 12 in US District Court. It seeks a schedule “culminating in a trial commencing the week of February 5, 2024.”

“Plaintiffs have met and conferred with Defendants regarding this motion,” wrote lawyers representing voter ID critics. “The State Board Defendants and Legislator Intervenor-Defendants oppose this relief. The State Board Defendants ‘believe that any decision on the trial date should be left to the sound discretion of the Court.’ The Legislator Intervenor-Defendants object to setting a trial date until Plaintiffs’ Objection to the Magistrate’s September 12, 2023 Order is resolved.”

Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld’s Sept. 12 order denied the plaintiffs’ request to reopen discovery in the case. Auld’s order questioned whether the plaintiffs had acted “in good faith” when seeking additional documents and interviews related to voter ID.

The plaintiffs’ latest motion reminded the court that the federal trial had been scheduled twice before — in January 2021 and January 2022. In both cases, appeals delayed the case.

“Setting a trial date in early 2024 will allow the Court to issue a decision on this matter well before the 2024 general election, clarifying the requirements for voting sufficiently in advance to allow for voter education, as well as the preparation of election materials and training of election workers,” according to the latest motion.

A stay issued in December 2021 placed the case in limbo. Plaintiffs challenging the ID law returned to federal court this year after the state Supreme Court’s April 28 ruling allowed the ID requirement to move forward.

A 5-2 ruling from the Republican-led state high court 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.

Lawmakers approved the 2018 law weeks after NC 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 with a three-judge Superior Court panel. The voter ID law can stand or fall legally regardless of the case challenging the state constitutional amendment.

Forward Justice filed the federal 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.

Republican legislative leaders asked to intervene in the case to defend the voter ID law. Biggs said no in June 2019. The 4th Circuit also ruled against legislative intervention.

Once the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear lawmakers’ arguments for intervention, Biggs issued her stay in December 2021. That order blocked a trial that had been scheduled for January 2022. Biggs put the case on hold pending action from the U.S. Supreme Court “or until further Order of this Court.”

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. 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.