News: CJ Exclusives

Analysts disagree on merits of 4th Circuit election law ruling

Both conservative Adams and liberal Hasen say appellate ruling that disregards facts laid out by trial judge is unusual

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

Legal analysts have given the opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturning North Carolina’s election reform law, including its voter ID requirement, mixed reviews.

Both J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation in Washington, and Rick Hasen, chancellor’s professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, noted that it was highly unusual for the three-judge appeals panel to overturn a district court judge’s factual findings.

While Hasen saw merit in the decision, Adams didn’t.

“The 4th Circuit did what very few federal appeals courts do; they pretended they were a trial court,” Adams said. “One of the things they teach you in law school is trial courts deal with the facts and appeals courts deal with the law.”

Hasen acknowledged that trial courts generally grant deference to the facts stated by a trial court.

“Here, though, I think it was more a matter of the inference to be drawn from the facts that the trial court gathered — the inference being that North Carolina acted with racially discriminatory intent — than the facts themselves,” including the General Assembly’s request that data regarding certain election issues be broken down on the basis of race, Hasen said.

The appeals court, on July 29, also struck down four other provisions of a broad election reform law adopted in 2013 by the General Assembly: shortening the duration of the early voting period; eliminating same-day registration during early voting; eliminating voting by residents who aren’t in their home precincts; and eliminating an early registration program for teenagers not yet old enough to vote. The state is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appeals court said that the federal district court “missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees.” It cited the state’s history of voter discrimination, and viewed the five provisions in the 2013 law in light of that history.

The 4th Circuit judges, however, said they weren’t insinuating the lawmakers were racists.

“Our conclusion does not mean, and we do not suggest, that any member of the General Assembly harbored racial hatred or animosity toward any minority group,” the appeals court said. Even so, the court went on to say that the state’s history of voting discrimination, the surge of African American voting, and the legislature’s knowledge that the election law changes would disproportionately affect black voters constituted racial discrimination.

“The court is clear that a finding of racially discriminatory intent does not mean that the state legislature acted with racial animus or hatred,” Hasen said. “Instead, it means that the legislature acted in passing its law, knowing it would have a negative effect on African-American voters, and did so because of, not despite, the fact so as to gain partisan advantage.”

State elections officials and Republican leaders, however, have noted that in the 2014 election — the first federal election after the new voting provisions were enacted — turnout among black voters was higher than it was in 2010, the last nonpresidential election before the law passed. (The voter ID requirement was delayed until the 2016 primary and general elections.)

Adams said the court “apparently wanted to set the law aside no matter what,” adding that the appeals court’s ruling turns voting rights into a political weapon.

“Anything that the legislature ever passes and might affect blacks or Democrats ever so slightly more than whites or Republicans, these judges say it’s a voting rights violation,” Adams said. “That’s bad for the Voting Rights Act and for politics.”