Judge rejects GOP participation in one federal lawsuit challenging NC election law

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • A federal judge has denied Republican groups' request to take part in one of three lawsuits challenging North Carolina's new election law.
  • US District Judge Thomas Schroeder concluded that GOP interests would be represented by Republican legislative leaders participating in the suit filed by activist group Democracy NC.
  • The Republican National Committee, North Carolina Republican Party, and two local GOP officials are intervening in two other related cases in Schroeder's court.

The Republican National Committee and North Carolina Republican Party will not intervene in one of three lawsuits challenging the state’s new election law. A federal judge has denied GOP requests to take part in a suit led by left-of-center activist group Democracy NC.

The state and national Republican groups, along with two local GOP party leaders, will participate in two other suits. One was filed by state and national Democratic groups. The other features left-of-center activist groups working with Democratic lawyer Marc Elias’ law firm.

US District Judge Thomas Schroeder issued a 12-page order Monday explaining his decision to reject Republican Party participation in the Democracy NC suit.

That suit focuses on just one section — 10(a) — of Senate Bill 747. It deals with changes in the rules for same-day voter registration. The plaintiffs filed suit against members of the State Board of Elections, who are the official defendants. Republican legislative leaders have intervened in the case to defend the targeted section.

Schroeder’s order describes the Republican groups as “Party Movants.”

“Plaintiffs respond that the Party Movants share the same ultimate objectives as the Defendants and Legislative Intervenors,” Schroeder wrote. “They add that there is little risk that the Legislative Intervenors will prioritize certain provisions of S.B. 747 over others, as the suit focuses solely on section 10(a).”

The judge agreed that Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, are pursuing the same goal as GOP groups. “[T]here is little doubt that, at a minimum, the Legislative Intervenors have the same ‘ultimate objective’ as the Party Movants.”

“[T]he court is skeptical that the Legislative Intervenors, who have intervened in two other related cases concerning S.B. 747 and led their respective chambers in passing the statute through the General Assembly, will not zealously pursue an adequate defense of section 10(a),” Schroeder wrote.

GOP “viewpoints are adequately represented in this lawsuit at least by the Legislative Intervenors if not also by the Defendants,” Schroeder added. It’s likely that the Republican groups will present their views about section 10(a) as they participate in the other two lawsuits, the judge concluded.

The Democracy NC case is moving on a quicker timetable than the other two suits, which involve requests for preliminary injunctions. “The court thus finds that adding Movants will produce cumulative arguments ‘without a corresponding benefit to existing litigants, the courts, or the process,’ … and has the potential of creating ‘inefficiencies and undue delay of the resolution of these matters,’” Schroeder wrote.

The Republican groups sought intervention for themselves, former Cumberland County Republican Party chair Brenda Eldridge, and current Pasquotank County chair Virginia Ann Wasserberg. Eldridge and Wasserberg also have worked as poll observers.

“The way to inspire confidence in American elections — and their outcomes — is to apply rules that are clear and fair to all eligible voters, candidates, and political groups,” according to a memorandum filed in connection with the GOP’s motion to intervene. “Toward that end, the North Carolina General Assembly recently passed S.B. 747, which revises the State’s election code to provide appropriate safeguards and transparency while still offering voters ample opportunities to cast a ballot.”

“In ordinary political climates, this pedestrian [law] would be welcomed as part of the ‘substantial regulation of elections’ that is necessary ‘if they are to be fair and honest and if some sort of order, rather than chaos, is to accompany the democratic processes,’” the memo continued. “But as a sign of the times, S.B. 747 met immediate litigation, as eight Democratic Party-affiliated organizations and allies, represented by six law firms, filed three lawsuits in this Court, two of them the same day S.B. 747 passed.”

“Armed with hyperbole and mischaracterization, these Plaintiffs pose a long list of objections to various aspects of S.B. 747,” Republican lawyers argued. “These include far-reaching assertions, such as that an election-day ballot-receipt deadline violates the Constitution and that the Voting Rights Act forbids poll-observer participation at voting places. One set of Plaintiffs has already moved for provisional relief, and similar requests may follow from the others.”

“The question before the Court today is not whether any of these challenges has merit, but whether this litigation of paramount public importance will proceed with or without the participation of one of the nation’s two major political parties,” Republican lawyers wrote.

“There is good reason for the Court to grant this motion,” Republican lawyers argued. “The State’s executive branch is unlikely to vigorously defend S.B. 747, which passed over the Governor’s veto. And although the State’s legislative leaders have moved to intervene (as is their right), this state of affairs will (at best) place eight entity Plaintiffs represented by six law firms against one set of institutional-capacity intervenors represented by one law firm.”

“One need not doubt the superb skill of that latter firm to see that this case, as currently postured, lacks the parity necessary to ensure public confidence in the outcome,” the GOP memo continued. “As the Democratic Party itself observed, ‘political parties usually have good cause to intervene in disputes over election rules.’ That is why, in numerous cases concerning election rules, political parties are virtually always allowed to intervene. If intervention is appropriate in any election case, this is it.”

SB 747 became law on Oct. 10 when the state House and Senate voted to override Cooper’s veto of the election reform measure.

In addition to a Democratic governor’s veto, the Republican memo noted that Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein “has publicly opposed” the new election law. “It is unlikely that Democratic Party officials will vigorously defend laws they have publicly opposed from challenges by eight Democratic Party-affiliated (or allied) organizations,” GOP lawyers argued.