Legislative leaders object to shorter timeline for felon voting case

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  • Lawyers representing N.C. legislative leaders oppose an expedited schedule for a felon voting case at the state Supreme Court.
  • Plaintiffs seek oral arguments as early as August, but lawmakers propose a schedule that would push arguments back to October at the earliest.

Lawyers representing N.C. legislative leaders oppose an “unnecessarily expedited” plan for the N.C. Supreme Court to consider felon voting as early as August. Legislators’ alternative plan would delay the case until at least October.

A brief filed Friday explains why lawmakers object to an expedited hearing schedule in the case called Community Success Initiative v. Moore. The case could add 56,000 felons to N.C. voting rolls as early as November. It would apply to felons who have completed active prison time but still face probation, parole, or post-release supervision.

Under normal rules, legislative leaders would face a mid-July deadline to file an opening brief with the state Supreme Court. Final paperwork would be due around Sept. 1.

Plaintiffs in the case have asked the court to speed up the timeline, with a July 7 deadline for the opening brief and an Aug. 8 due date for final paperwork.

Legislative lawyers object. “This expedited schedule is wholly unnecessary,” according to the brief. “Even under Plaintiffs’ proposed schedule, the briefing will not be complete until August 8, after the operative stay will expire.”

The “operative stay” refers to an order from the N.C. Court of Appeals that blocked felon voting for both the May 17 primary and upcoming July 26 elections. The Appeals Court did nothing to block felon voting for the general election.

“Even the standard briefing schedule could not prejudice Plaintiffs, given that they will begin to receive their requested (though unwarranted) relief before briefing would be complete,” the legislators’ brief argued. “Indeed, Plaintiffs barely attempt to establish cause for their schedule. That this case ‘has been pending for over 2.5 years’ is entirely normal.”

In addition to rejecting the expedited timeline, lawmakers are asking the Supreme Court to extend the briefing schedule. They suggest an Aug. 1 deadline for an opening brief, with final paperwork due Oct. 6. Oral arguments would take place afterward.

The state Supreme Court agreed on May 6 to hear the case. The high court removed the case from the N.C. Court of Appeals. A split three-judge appellate panel ruled April 26 that felons would not be allowed to register or vote in the May 17 primary or in July 26 elections. But the 2-1 ruling opened the door for felons who have finished active prison time to register and vote in November.

State legislative leaders filed paperwork on April 28 asking the full 15-member Court of Appeals to reconsider that decision in a rare “en banc” hearing. The Supreme Court’s May 6 action removed the possibility of a 15-judge appellate ruling.

Political observers have taken note of judges’ partisan affiliations in this case. When a trial court struck down the state’s 1973 law for felons to regain their voting rights, a Democrat and an unaffiliated judge voted, 2-1, to overrule a dissenting Republican colleague. In the Appeals Court, two Democratic judges overruled a Republican.

Had the full Appeals Court held the en banc hearing, Republicans would have outnumbered Democrats, 10-5. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the state Supreme Court.

Republican legislative leaders have criticized the trial court ruling. They say it ignores Article VI, Section 2(3) of the state Constitution. That provision proclaims felons cannot vote in state elections until they have been “first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.”

By striking down the 1973 law that created a process for felons to regain voting rights, the trial court disenfranchised all felons, legislative leaders argued.

Republican Appeals Court Judge Jefferson Griffin agreed. He dissented from the April 26 ruling allowing for felon voting to begin in the fall.

“The framers of our State Constitution, and the people of this State, established … that convicted felons would not be treated the same as similarly situated, law-abiding citizens and would not be entitled to [the] same right to vote in free elections,” Griffin wrote. “Instead, convicted felons would not have the right to vote unless their voting rights are restored ‘in the manner prescribed by law.’”

Griffin warned of the “high risk of irreparable harm” to the public interest if felon voting proceeds before the legal dispute reaches its final resolution. “If convicted felons are permitted to vote in the November election and Petitioners subsequently prevail on the merits of their appeal, untold thousands of lawful votes cast by North Carolina citizens likely will be diluted by votes cast by convicted felons in violation of our State Constitution,” he wrote.

An April Civitas Poll from the John Locke Foundation found that 66% of likely general election voters support the state constitution’s current restrictions on felon voting. Among those surveyed, 54% opposed the trial court’s ruling allowing felons to cast votes before completing their full sentences.