Judge wants more information about reopening federal voter ID case

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  • U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld wants more information from voter identification critics and supporters before deciding how a federal lawsuit will move forward.
  • Voter ID critics filed suit in federal court in 2018, shortly after state lawmakers approved the ID law. The case has been in limbo since December 2021.
  • An April ruling from the N.C. Supreme Court upheld voter ID. The State Board of Elections will require a photo ID from voters during this year's municipal elections.

A judge wants more information from voter identification critics and defenders before deciding how a federal lawsuit against North Carolina’s 2018 ID law can proceed. A court order has kept the case in limbo since December 2021.

Voters will have to produce a photo ID for this year’s municipal elections. It’s possible that the federal case could affect the ID requirement in future elections.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld set a schedule Wednesday for future action in the case titled N.C. State Conference of the NAACP v. Cooper. Auld’s hearing in Greensboro represented the first courtroom action in the federal case in more than a year.

The judge denied voter ID critics’ request to reopen discovery in the case to apply to state legislative leaders.

Auld set an Aug. 2 deadline for a notice of proposed discovery involving the State Board of Elections. That notice should include “the exact discovery requests,” including details about requested documents, proposed questions, and interviews. The notice also will include up to 10 pages of argument “stating why plaintiff should be allowed to serve discovery on the State Board Defendants.”

The State Board of Elections and Republican legislative leaders will respond to the voter ID critics’ proposals by Aug. 16. A final reply from ID critics is due Aug. 23.

Voter ID opponents filed paperwork on June 9 requesting the status conference. They also asked a federal judge to lift a stay that has kept their lawsuit in limbo since December 2021.

The June court filing marked the first substantive action in the federal lawsuit in nearly a year. The case known as N.C. State Conference of the NAACP v. Cooper had been quiet since July 2022.

“In particular, Plaintiffs would like to discuss a schedule to have these claims adjudicated,” according to the motion lawyers with Forward Justice filed in U.S. District Court. The left-of-center advocacy group is representing the state NAACP and local NAACP chapters.

Plaintiffs substituted the name Alan Hirsch for Gov. Roy Cooper as the lead defendant. Hirsch chairs the State Board of Elections.

The federal case against voter ID has seen new action only since the N.C. Supreme Court threw out a state lawsuit challenging voter ID this spring. 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.

ID critics’ federal court filing referenced the State Board of Elections’ reaction to the state Supreme Court decision. The state court case Holmes v. Moore challenged the ID law, which was known originally as Senate Bill 824.

“Immediately following the Holmes decision, the North Carolina State Board of Elections announced that it would implement S.B. 824 starting with the municipal elections in September, October, and November 2023; and has begun issuing guidance, communications, and proposed administrative rules,” Forward Justice lawyers wrote. “In a letter to the North Carolina General Assembly delivered May 12, 2023, SBOE Director Karen Brinson Bell requested $6.5 million in funding over the next two years to allow the State Board of Elections to implement S.B. 824’s photo voter ID requirements in the upcoming municipal elections of 2023 and the 2024 General Election.”

“In light of the efforts by the State Board Defendants to implement S.B. 824, Plaintiffs believe the stay should be lifted so that the federal claims concerning the legality of S.B. 824 can be adjudicated,” according to the plaintiffs’ filing.

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.

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.