Legislative leaders urge N.C. Supreme Court not to take up felon voting case

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • 56,000 felons would be added to the state's voting rolls
  • advocates want state's highest court to bypass Court of Appeals

A new filing from N.C. legislative leaders asks the state Supreme Court to steer clear of a case involving voting rights for felons. A courtroom victory for the felons could add 56,000 people to the state’s voting rolls.

A Superior Court panel ruled 2-1 on March 28 in favor of the felons. The N.C. Court of Appeals issued an April 5 order temporarily blocking the ruling. Now the felons and their advocates are asking the state’s highest court to take the case out of the Appeals Court’s hands.

“For the second time in this litigation, the Superior Court has sought to drastically change North Carolina’s election rules on the eve of an election,” according to a brief filed Monday from Nicole Moss, an attorney representing state legislative leaders. “The court permanently enjoined Defendants to allow all convicted felons serving sentences outside of prison to register and vote. That injunction is irreconcilable with the North Carolina Constitution, which disenfranchises all convicted felons until ‘restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.’”

The state constitutional provision restricting felon voting, spelled out in Article VI, Section 2(3), “has not been challenged in this case,” Moss noted.

“Plaintiffs now seek to capitalize on the timing of the Superior Court’s ruling — which has since been temporarily stayed by the Court of Appeals — by requesting that this Court short-circuit the normal appellate process and decide this important matter at a breakneck pace before the upcoming elections,” Moss wrote. “Although Legislative Defendants are confident that the Superior Court’s decision cannot stand, the public interest weighs in favor of this Court allowing the Court of Appeals to review the Superior Court’s decision in the first instance.”

Partisan considerations could be playing a role in the plaintiffs’ pursuit of a quick Supreme Court review. Two Democratic Superior Court judges sided with the felons at the trial-court level, while a Republican colleague dissented. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 10-5, on the Appeals Court, while Democrats outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the Supreme Court.

“No one denies the significance of the issues in dispute here, but that is all the more reason for this Court to avoid a decision made in unnecessary haste and without the benefit of the Court of Appeals’ consideration,” Moss wrote. “Consequently, this Court should allow for this case to proceed in the ordinary course. That is particularly so because Plaintiffs offer no valid reason to circumvent that process.”

“Although this case is of great importance, the usual appellate procedures are best equipped to ensure this Court has the full benefit of intermediate appellate review, giving confidence to this Court, the parties, and the public at large that whatever decision is reached in this contentious case is well-considered and ultimately correct.”

A win for the plaintiffs would mean that any felon who has completed active prison time could register to vote in North Carolina. That change would apply to people on parole, probation, or post-release supervision.

The March 28 decision threw out a 1973 state law setting rules for felons to regain voting rights. The law blocked voting for any felon who had not completed his full sentence.

There’s no deadline for the Supreme Court to decide whether to take the case.