News: The Woodshed

Lawmakers fire AG Stein for refusing to appeal felon voting ruling

Attorney General Josh Stein, during a January 2017 swearing-in ceremony at the Executive Mansion. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Attorney General Josh Stein, during a January 2017 swearing-in ceremony at the Executive Mansion. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

The GOP-led North Carolina General Assembly has taken the rare step of “firing” Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein for refusing his constitutional duty to fully represent the legislature in court.

Lawmakers allege that Stein refused to file an immediate appeal of a state court ruling that would allow tens of thousands of convicted felons who have not completed their sentences to vote.

Under the court’s ruling, an estimated 56,000 convicted felons who have not finished paying their debt to society and their victims would now be allowed to vote.  Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell announced Monday that two of three judges on a panel in the felon voting case agreed to effectively substitute their preferred policy outcome for the policy passed into law by the legislature in 1973, and the direct text of the state constitution.  The announcement comes ahead of a formal ruling because some municipal elections in North Carolina are scheduled for October.

“This is an absurd ruling that flies in the face of our constitution and further casts doubt on election integrity in North Carolina,” according to Sam Hayes, general counsel for House Speaker Tim Moore.

With Stein’s refusal to appeal the ruling, legislative leaders say they will hire a private law firm to represent the state and its citizens. For now, a press release from Sen. Warren Daniel’s office says lawmakers will file for a “stay” of the decision pending an appeal.

In the state constitution, felons can’t ever vote unless the legislature adopts a law to re-enfranchise them. However, in the 1970s a Democrat-led legislature passed a law allowing felons the right to vote after completing their sentences, as well as parole and any probation. Under that law, felons who owe restitution to victims of crime are required to fulfill that obligation before they are allowed to vote.

During the 2020 election campaign, a lawsuit was filed by civil rights groups and ex-felons in an effort to overturn that 1973 law. The same three-judge panel ruled last September that felons could vote in the 2020 election if the only item blocking them from completing their sentences was a failure to pay fees or fines.

Earlier this month the court bumped the case to the top of the pile,  verbally issuing its decision Monday without a written opinion.

Legislative leaders asked the attorney general to appeal the ruling immediately. Stein refused, citing an odd technicality that his office says forbids him from appealing a judge’s ruling without a written opinion.

Legislative leaders quickly fired Stein, claiming he refused to perform his duties. (Read the letter to Stein here).

“This law, passed by a Democrat-led legislature 50 years ago, provides a path for felons to regain voting rights,” said Daniel in a press statement on Monday. “If a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path. Judges aren’t supposed to be oligarchs who issue whatever decrees they think best.”

Lawmakers are under a tight deadline as the North Carolina State Board of Elections is set to finalize materials for the 2021 election.  In a press release on Monday, the NCSBOE said that “county boards of elections across North Carolina must immediately begin to permit such individuals to register to vote.”

Interest groups that filed the lawsuit, including the Raleigh-based groups Community Success Initiative and Justice Served NC, say they are planning a large-scale voter registration drive for felons still on parole or probation. Fifteen other states require felons to complete their debt before voting.