NAACP wants voter ID, tax cap amendments case returned to single judge

Judge Graham Shirley (Image from WRAL pool footage)

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  • The state NAACP is asking for a lawsuit challenging two 2018 state constitutional amendments to shift from a three-judge panel to a single Wake County judge. One amendment mandates voter ID. The other lowers the state's cap on income tax rates.
  • A motion filed Friday challenges Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley's August 2023 decision to transfer the case from a single judge to a three-judge panel.
  • Though voters approved both measures in 2018, the state Supreme Court's then-Democratic majority ruled in 2022 that the amendments could be tossed out under certain circumstances.
  • Critics labeled the Supreme Court justices who issued the 2022 ruling the "Usurper Four."

The state NAACP wants a single Wake County judge to proceed with a lawsuit challenging two state constitutional amendments voters approved in 2018. One mandates voter ID. The other lowers the cap on state income tax rates.

The case does not affect North Carolina’s current law requiring ID for voters.

The NAACP filed a motion Friday to shift the case away from a three-judge panel. The court filing reached Wake County Superior Court more than five months after Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley issued an order transferring the case to a three-judge panel. The NAACP’s latest court filing argued that Shirley made the wrong decision.

Defendants in the case had pushed for the three-judge panel after a 2022 state Supreme Court ruling. The court’s then-Democratic majority ruled that the amendments could be tossed out under certain circumstances.

A previous three-judge panel already had ruled against taking the case.

“Rather than adopt Defendants’ reasoning that the case had somehow been ‘transformed’ by the Supreme Court, Judge Shirley directly contravened the prior determinations by the three-judge panel, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court, and concluded that NC NAACP’s claims had always been facial challenges and thus subject to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-267.1,” NAACP lawyers wrote last week. “As a result, Judge Shirley concluded he lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and ordered the case to be transferred to another three-judge panel.”

The cited state law determines when court cases should head to a three-judge panel. Those panels are designated to hear any “facial” constitutional challenge. That term applies to lawsuits arguing that a state law violates the state constitution under all circumstances.

“To the extent Judge Shirley’s order relied on reasoning that this case belonged before a three-judge panel from the outset, he did not have the authority to second-guess the prior three-judge panel’s determination,” NAACP lawyers argued. “That panel plainly held that NC NAACP’s as-applied racial-gerrymander claims were ‘not within the [panel’s] jurisdiction.’”

“NC NAACP is arguing that, as a procedural matter, a specific racially gerrymandered legislature lacked the authority to propose these amendments under a specific set of circumstances,” according to the court filing. “As the Supreme Court recognized, this will be a fact-intensive inquiry requiring an evidentiary hearing. And as counsel for Defendants conceded in response to questioning from this panel, such an inquiry is generally incompatible with a facial challenge.”

Shirley issued his transfer order on Aug. 2. Republican state legislative leaders had requested the shift from a single judge to a three-judge panel.

Shirley agreed with legislative leaders that state law required the transfer.

“The Supreme Court’s analysis clearly reveals that Plaintiffs’ claims, which are collateral attacks on the Amendments themselves, are also direct attacks on the Sessions Laws and thus constitute facial challenges to acts of the General Assembly which initiated the amendment process at issue,” Shirley wrote. “As such, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-267.1 vests exclusive subject matter jurisdiction in a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Wake County, as organized pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-267.1(b2).”

The case returned to Wake County Superior Court after a 4-3 ruling in August 2022 from the NC Supreme Court. In a party-line vote, the court’s then-Democratic majority determined that the amendments could be tossed out because a “gerrymandered” legislature had placed them on the ballot.

Plaintiffs led by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP labeled the Republican-led General Assembly a “usurper.” Shirley’s order referred to the plaintiffs’ argument as the “Legislative Usurper Claim.”

High court Democrats endorsed much of the plaintiffs’ argument but left the final decision about the amendments’ fate in the hands of the Wake Superior Court.

Eight months later, after the state Supreme Court had shifted to a 5-2 Republican majority, the new court upheld the state’s voter ID law. Lawmakers had approved the law in 2018, just weeks after voters endorsed the ID constitutional amendment.

That April state Supreme Court decision prompted the North Carolina State Board of Elections to prepare for implementing the voter ID requirement. Elections officials requested ID from voters during the 2023 municipal elections. The ID requirement remains in effect this year.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins rejected both constitutional amendments in February 2019. The NC Court of Appeals later reversed Collins’ ruling. The 4-3 Democrat-led Supreme Court’s August 2022 decision reversed the Appeals Court’s decision.

“The issue is whether legislators elected from unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered districts possess unreviewable authority to initiate the process of changing the North Carolina Constitution, including in ways that would allow those same legislators to entrench their own power, insulate themselves from political accountability, or discriminate against the same racial group who were excluded from the democratic process by the unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered districts,” wrote Justice Anita Earls for the then-Democratic majority.

“We conclude that article I, sections 2 and 3 of the North Carolina Constitution impose limits on these legislators’ authority to initiate the process of amending the constitution under these circumstances,” Earls added. “Nonetheless, we also conclude that the trial court’s order in this case invalidating the two challenged amendments swept too broadly.”

Republican justices objected. “[T]he majority nullifies the will of the people and precludes governance by the majority,” according to dissenters.

“At issue today is not what our constitution says. The people of North Carolina settled that question when they amended the constitution to include the Voter ID and Tax Cap Amendments,” Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote in dissent. “These amendments were placed on the November 2018 ballot by the constitutionally required three-fifths majority in the legislature. On November 6, 2018, the citizens of North Carolina voted overwhelmingly to approve the North Carolina Voter ID Amendment and the North Carolina Income Tax Cap Amendment. More than 2,000,000 people, or 55.49% of voters, voted in favor of Voter ID, while the Tax Cap Amendment was approved by more than 57% of North Carolina’s voters.”

“Instead, the majority engages in an inquiry that is judicially forbidden — what should our constitution say? This question is designated solely to the people and the legislature,” Berger added. “The majority concedes that constitutional procedures were followed, yet they invalidate more than 4.1 million votes and disenfranchise more than 55% of North Carolina’s electorate.”

The John Locke Foundation’s then-CEO, Amy Cooke, also criticized the 4-3 decision in August 2022.

“The ‘Usurper Four’ Democrat majority has gone scorched earth on the state constitution and the will of millions of North Carolina voters,” Cooke said in a prepared statement. “This decision, crafted by notorious progressive idealogue Anita Earls, is designed to appease the Democrats’ far-left activist base — a small but well-funded base that openly rejects the very popular voter ID law and taxpayer protections. These four justices — Anita Earls, Sam Ervin, Michael Morgan, and Robin Hudson — are guilty of voter suppression.” 

Hudson retired from the court when her term expired in 2022. Voters ousted Ervin in the 2022 election.

The voter ID amendment has generated more interest than the tax cap amendment. North Carolina’s income tax rate falls far below either the old 10% cap or the 7% cap tied to the amendment.

The amendments case, titled NC NAACP v. Moore, was the subject of Season One of the John Locke Foundation’s “Extreme Injustice” podcast. The case is documented at