Legislators oppose ‘breakneck’ schedule for felon voting case at N.C. Supreme Court

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  • Legislative leaders object to a proposal for the N.C. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments as early as this month in a felon voting case.
  • Up to 56,000 felons on probation, parole, or post-release supervision are eligible to vote in this year's general election. A trial court made that ruling after throwing out the state's 1973 law for restoring felons' voting rights.

Legislative leaders reject a proposal to have the N.C. Supreme Court hear arguments in a felon voting case as early as this month. Lawmakers filed paperwork Tuesday objecting to a plan from felon voting advocates.

The case ultimately could affect 56,000 potential voters.

“After failing to attain a breakneck briefing schedule, Plaintiffs now seek a breakneck argument schedule,” according to legislators’ latest brief. “The ostensible basis for their request is the ‘changed circumstance’ presented by an argument raised in Legislative Defendants’ briefs in this appeal. But Legislative Defendants have raised that same argument in every one of the many substantive briefs they have filed in this case over the last year. Plaintiffs’ new motion is nothing more than a baseless second attempt at expedition, which this Court already has properly denied.”

The state Supreme Court’s current schedule includes no oral arguments after Wednesday. It’s unclear how many more cases justices will schedule before the end of the year.

The court’s composition is guaranteed to change in 2023. Senior Associate Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat, chose not to run for re-election. Her term expires at the end of December.

Hudson’s seat is one of two on the general election ballot. In the other race, Justice Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, a fellow Democrat, is seeking a second eight-year term.

Democrats now outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the state Supreme Court. The composition could shift to 4-3 or 5-2 in Republicans’ favor next year, depending on the outcome of November’s election.

Even if Democrats win both races, the court would have one new justice in 2023. Unresolved cases might present complications if they require new votes in the new year.

In two other cases heard this week, the state Supreme Court expedited oral arguments in election-related lawsuits. Holmes v. Moore, heard Monday, challenges the state law for photo voter identification. Harper v. Hall, heard Tuesday, deals with disputes over state election maps.

Felon voting supporters filed a motion on Sept. 21 urging the court to add Community Success Initiative v. Moore to its schedule for oral arguments. That’s the case challenging North Carolina’s law for restoring voting rights to convicted felons.

Plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to schedule arguments “as soon as feasible in October or November if possible.”

As many as 56,000 felons on probation, parole, or post-release supervision can register and vote this fall. A split trial court voted 2-1 in March to throw out North Carolina’s law regarding felon voting. A split 2-1 N.C. Court of Appeals panel ruled in April that the trial court’s decision could take effect after this year’s July 26 elections.

The state Supreme Court will take no action to change the status quo for the general election. Yet felon voting advocates say court filings in the case to date might generate confusion about felons’ rights.

The plaintiffs’ motion cited legislative leaders’ “threats of criminal prosecution” that could “improperly intimidate and deter lawful North Carolina voters from registering and voting.”

Legislative leaders rebut that argument in this week’s filing. “Legislative Defendants’ briefs contain no ‘threats of criminal prosecution,’ … which Legislative Defendants could not initiate,” according to lawmakers’ brief. “Nor do Legislative Defendants assert that any felons should or will be prosecuted for voting in reliance on the Superior Court’s order during any election conducted while that order is in effect.”

“What our briefs do contain are multiple reasons why the Superior Court lacked authority to enter that order and thus why the order should be vacated for future elections, one reason being that the order could not and does not redress Plaintiffs’ alleged injury,” the brief continued.

Lawmakers have argued throughout the case that the N.C. Constitution prevents felons from voting. Felons can cast ballots only after state law restores their citizenship rights. When throwing out the existing law regarding felon voting, the trial court had no authority to grant voting rights that are banned in the state constitution, lawmakers contend.

There is no deadline for a decision from the Supreme Court about oral arguments.