Arguing that GOP-tilted districts had rendered elected lawmakers “usurpers” who “did not represent the people of North Carolina,” Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins has struck down two constitutional amendments approved by state voters last fall: one requiring a photo ID to vote and the other capping North Carolina’s income-tax rate at 7 percent.
I have advocated nonpartisan redistricting reform for more than 30 years. Since Republicans won legislative majorities in 2010, I have prodded them to reform redistricting, just as I prodded Democratic leaders to do it when they were in charge. But to Democrats gleeful about what Judge Collins has just done, I can only say that you are making a grave error.
North Carolinians support voter ID and the tax cap. They just added them to the state constitution. If this decision survives appeal, voters will view the state’s judiciary as the usurpers — and they’ll be right.
Legal disputes about redistricting have, unfortunately, been part of our political landscape for decades. One reason I favor redistricting reform, and am working with a wide-ranging coalition to get it passed this year, is that I believe this litigation to be a costly, convoluted, and divisive force in North Carolina politics.
However, I also understand that opinions differ about what fairness in redistricting means, and that state and federal judges have repeatedly altered the standards for legally permissible district maps. Although courts must inevitably settle some such disputes, it would be foolish and reckless to insist that legislative elections held in districts subsequently found to be noncompliant with statutory or constitutional provisions have no democratic legitimacy — that such legislatures do not “represent the people of North Carolina” and thus cannot legally enact legislation.
The implication of Collins’s theory is that every bill enacted by the General Assembly before the 2018 elections represents an invalid exercise of legislative power. Every tax dollar collected and appropriated by a budget bill, every pay raise for teachers and state employees, every change in civil and criminal law is suspect.
Collins was clearly aware of how ridiculous this would make him sound, so he tried to distinguish the legislative authority to propose amendments (requiring a three-fifths supermajority) from the authority to enact other bills. But the distinction doesn’t work here. Collins noted that two-thirds of all legislative districts had to be redrawn to satsify the court order — which, of course, means that the Republicans’ majorities, not just their supermajorities, were at issue. Indeed, under his theory it would make more sense to strike down enacted budgets and statutes than to strike down constitutional amendments, since only lawmakers ratify the former while the people themselves must ratify the latter.
“The prospect of invalidating 18 months of laws is the definition of chaos and confusion,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in response to the Collins ruling. Quite so. No matter how passionate they feel about blocking voter ID, raising taxes, or reforming redistricting, Democrats should not embrace this radical and irresponsible ruling.
Its radicalism and irresponsibility extend beyond redistricting disputes. Among the “findings of fact” in the Collins decision was that capping the income tax was a racist act — that it will “act as a tax cut only for the wealthy” and tend to “favor white households and disadvantage people of color, reinforcing the accumulation of wealth for white households and undermining the financing of public structures that have the potential to benefit non-wealthy people, including people of color and the poor.”
This claim by one of the plaintiffs, the NAACP, is both offensive and factually inaccurate. Before the General Assembly enacted tax reform in 2013, North Carolinians who earned more than $60,000 a year were subject to a state income tax rate of 7.75 percent on that income. The thresholds were $80,000 for a head of household and $100,000 for a married couple.
Do you consider all these North Carolinians “wealthy”? Do you think they were all white? That Judge Collins took this claim seriously as a justification for the NAACP’s standing to challenge the tax cap should tell you all you need to know.
Politically, the plaintiffs and the progressive interest groups who have financed and cheered them on have put Democrats in a perilous situation and handed Republicans a potent election issue. If a Democratic judiciary strikes down popular policies just approved by the voters themselves, most will see the Democrats as the party hostile to popular sovereignty here, not the Republicans.
The plaintiffs have also done the cause of redistricting reform a great disservice. By blocking partisan abuses and producing fairer, more compact, more voter-friendly districts, reformers seek to promote stability and cooperation, not chaos and confrontation.