News: Quick Takes

Martin names panel to hear challenges to ballot amendments

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin has named a three-judge panel with mixed political affiliations to hear a pair of lawsuits challenging four constitutional amendments. He designated Wake County as the venue, but did not set a date.

Martin assigned Superior Court senior resident judges Forrest Donald Bridges, Thomas Lock, and Jeffery Carpenter to serve on the panel. The cases initially were heard Tuesday, Aug. 7, by Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway. Ridgeway ruled the suits pose a facial challenge to the state constitution, thus should be heard by a three-judge panel. Martin agreed and issued his order later in the day.

Bridges, a Democrat, serves Cleveland and Lincoln counties. He has been on the court since January 1995. Lock, who is registered as unaffiliated, serves Johnston County and was first elected in 2006. Carpenter, a Republican, serves Union County. He was  appointed to the bench in May 2016 and won election that November.

The panel will receive transcripts from Tuesday’s hearing and hear arguments from attorneys from all sides. Ridgeway advised lawyers to “be prepared to readdress these issues” and any additional filings they submit.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and the N.C. Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement were named in the lawsuits.

In one case, Gov. Roy Cooper seeks to block two amendments from appearing on the ballot. He contends the language affixed to them is vague and misleading. His lawsuit states House Bill 913, which creates a new eight-member Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement appointed by the legislature, and Senate Bill 814, which changes the appointment process for judicial vacancies, “cripple separation of powers and checks and balances.”

The N.C. Conference of the NAACP and Clean Air Carolina, an environmental group, joined in another lawsuit. They are challenging the same two amendments as Cooper, as well as amendments requiring a photo ID to vote, and lowering the state income tax rate cap from 10 percent to 7 percent. Their suit also seeks to have the state legislature declared an unconstitutional body that usurped office through racially gerrymandered legislative districts.

On Tuesday, Ridgeway said the cases are “a matter of great urgency and importance,” and expressed confidence Martin would ensure they would be handled expeditiously. The timing is of interest because as of Wednesday, Aug. 8, there were no election ballots with 30 days remaining until absentee voting starts on Sept. 7, and 70 days until early voting starts on Oct. 17. The general election is on Nov. 6.

The state elections board postponed its Aug. 8 printing of election ballots. The delay was ordered by Wake County Superior Court Judge Becky Holt as part of her decision to hear a third constitutionally based lawsuit Monday, Aug. 13.

In that case, Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin switched from Democrat to Republican. He sued on constitutional grounds to block implementation of Senate Bill 3, which retroactively requires someone to be a member of the party under which they are running for at least 90 days. That would strip Anglin’s Republican party affiliation from the ballot. He said it’s unfair to change rules in the middle of the election season.

Holt granted Anglin’s request for a temporary restraining order that blocks removal of the GOP designation from his name.

It is unclear what effects delays due to the lawsuits — and likely appeals by the losers — might have on election schedules, or what contingency plans the state elections board is making. The board did not respond to a request for that information.