Lame-duck N.C. Supreme Court strikes down voter ID law, state Senate election map

The N.C. Supreme Court considers a voter ID case while meeting in Edenton. (Image from N.C. Supreme Court YouTube channel)

Listen to this story (8 minutes)

  • With 4-3 party-line votes, N.C. Supreme Court Democrats threw out the state's photo voter identification law and the state Senate election map.
  • The court issued its rulings two weeks before Republicans are scheduled to gain a 5-2 majority on North Carolina's highest court.

Two weeks before they’re set to lose their majority, N.C. Supreme Court Democrats issued rulings Friday striking down the state’s photo voter identification law and the election map used for state Senate races.

Both rulings featured party-line 4-3 splits, with the court’s four Democrats outvoting their three Republican colleagues.

Voters unseated one of those Democrats in the Nov. 8 election and elected Republicans to fill both his seat and an open seat. The state Supreme Court will have a 5-2 Republican majority in January.

Democratic Justice Anita Earls wrote the majority opinion in Holmes v. Moore. The decision throws out North Carolina’s 2018 voter ID law. Earls and fellow Supreme Court Democrats affirmed a three-judge trial court’s 2-1 ruling that the law discriminated against black voters. Two Democratic judges overruled a Republican colleague.

“Plaintiffs challenged [Senate Bill] 824, which requires a photo identification (ID) to vote, under article I, section 19, of the North Carolina Constitution, alleging the law was enacted at least in part with the intent to discriminate against African-American voters,” Earls wrote. “While most people who have one of the acceptable forms of photo identification do not run the risk of being disenfranchised by this statute, the experiences of plaintiffs and other witnesses at trial showed that for themselves and others like them, the risk of disenfranchisement is very real. But the guarantee of equal protection of the laws means that a law enacted with the intent to discriminate on the basis of race is unconstitutional even if no voter ultimately is disenfranchised because ‘[r]acial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our society.’”

“We hold that the three-judge panel’s findings of fact are supported by competent evidence showing that the statute was motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose,” Earls added.

Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote for dissenting Republicans.

“In November 2018, the people of North Carolina overwhelmingly amended their constitution to include a voter-ID requirement based upon a simple belief — that would-be voters should be required to identify themselves prior to casting a ballot,” Berger wrote. “Enabling legislation in the form of S.B. 824 was passed to effectuate the requirements of that constitutional amendment.”

“The plain language of S.B. 824 shows no intent to discriminate against any group or individual, and there is no evidence that S.B. 824 was passed with race in mind, let alone a racially discriminatory intent,” he added. “The majority relies, as it must, on a misapplication of relevant case law and on its own inferences to reach a contrary result.”

Without any additional legal action, the 2018 voter ID law would be unenforceable. Legislators would have to try again to approve a law that withstands court scrutiny.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, responded to the ruling. He is the father of the dissenting Republican justice.

If Democrats on the state Supreme Court can’t respect the will of the voters, the General Assembly will,” Berger said in a prepared statement. “Regardless of the policymaking goals of the activist justices, the people of North Carolina overwhelmingly support voter ID laws. I look forward to respecting their wishes and passing a new voter ID law next year.”

John Locke Foundation President Donald Bryson took aim at the Supreme Court’s four Democrats. “Once again the Usurper Four have proven their loyalty to partisanship over a commitment to the North Carolina Constitution and the voters who gave them the privilege to sit on the state’s highest court,” Bryson said. “Their ruling to overturn the constitutionally passed voter ID law shows how little they think of our constitution and people. Thankfully, voters are smart and they saw fit to give hyper-partisan justices the pink slip this past November. We expect the new conservative Supreme Court to honor the will of North Carolinians in 2023. The new year can’t come fast enough for those who care about the rule of law.”

In Harper v. Hall, the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority tossed out North Carolina’s state Senate election map. At the same time, Supreme Court Democrats upheld a map for N.C. House elections and affirmed a three-judge panel’s decision to throw out a congressional map drawn by legislative Republicans.

Retiring Democratic Justice Robin Hudson wrote the majority opinion in Harper.

“We determine that the trial court properly concluded that the Remedial Congressional Plan fell short of constitutional standards and that the Remedial House Plan met constitutional standards,” Hudson wrote. “These conclusions of law were supported by adequate factual findings, which were in turn supported by competent evidence. However, we hold that the trial court erred in its approval of the Remedial Senate Plan.”

“Unlike the trial court’s conclusions regarding the other plans, the trial court’s conclusion of law regarding the Remedial Senate Plan lacked adequate factual findings supported by competent evidence. Indeed, the evidence dictates the opposite finding and conclusion,” Hudson added.

Hudson’s 57-page opinion prompted a 72-page dissent from Chief Justice Paul Newby, writing for all three Republicans on the state’s highest court.

“To which branch of government does our constitution place the role of redistricting? The constitution expressly gives that responsibility to the legislative branch; even the majority so concedes. While paying lip service to this express grant of authority, the majority retains for itself the ultimate redistricting responsibility,” Newby wrote.

The chief justice reminded readers that Supreme Court Republicans warned back in February that Democratic colleagues planned to take over redistricting authority from state lawmakers.

“Today this prediction is fulfilled,” Newby wrote. “[T]he majority effectively amended the state constitution to establish a redistricting commission composed of judges and political science experts. When, however, this commission, using the majority’s redistricting criteria, reached an outcome with which the majority disagrees, the majority freely reweighs the evidence and substitutes its own fact-finding for that of the three-judge panel. Again, as predicted, ‘[t]he four members of this Court alone will approve a redistricting plan which meets their test of constitutionality.’”

State lawmakers already had planned to redraw North Carolina’s congressional map after voters faced a court-imposed map for the November elections. That map helped produce a 7-7 split between the major parties in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2023.

Now the three-judge trial court overseeing Harper v. Hall could force lawmakers to redraw the state Senate map. The current map produced a 30-20 Republican majority in the November election. With 30 seats, the GOP will hold a veto-proof supermajority in the legislative session that begins next month.

A separate case dealing with North Carolina’s congressional map sits at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Moore v. Harper, the nation’s highest court will determine whether state courts overstepped their authority in throwing out legislators’ congressional map in February.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with reaction to the rulings.