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North Carolina Supreme Court weighs if voter ID tainted by racial bias

nc_supreme_court.jpg
N.C. Supreme Court
/
North Carolina Judicial Branch

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s long-litigated photo voter identification law was appraised at the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Justices heard arguments on whether it was reasonable for trial judges to throw out the law that they determined was tainted by racial bias and designed to help Republicans retain their grip on the legislature.

The voter ID law approved by the General Assembly in December 2018, but it has never been enforced, as the requirement has been blocked by both federal or state courts over time. That remains the case for next month’s midterms.

An attorney for the Republican legislative leaders said a majority of trial judges conducting a trial on the law last year got both facts and conclusions wrong when they struck down the law.

Those judges failed to take into account the bipartisan nature of its passage and rule changes that would eliminate any disadvantage that Black voters would have in carrying a photo ID, lawyer Pete Patterson said. People without qualifying IDs would still be able to cast ballots by filling out a form.

“This is the most forgiving, reasonable impediment (form) provision in the nation,” Patterson told the justices in urging them to uphold the law or void the trial court's decision. “The notion that this was meant to be passed for partisan entrenchment just does not match up with the evidence.”

But minority voters represented by lawyer Jeff Loperfido urged the Supreme Court to keep intact the lower court ruling, saying it's not the job of the justices to substitute a different result if the trial judges' decision is reasonable.

“The question before this court is whether that conclusion is supported by findings of fact based on competent evidence,” Loperfido said. “And the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.”

Justices didn’t say when they would issue an opinion following an hour of arguments at the old Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton. But it’s likely to occur by the end of the year given that Senior Associate Justice Robin Hudson is retiring and Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV may lose a reelection bid. Hudson and Ervin are part of the four-member Democratic majority on the seven-member court.

Republicans have been trying for over a decade to implement photo ID. A 2013 voter ID law that was later struck down was carried out in the 2016 primary elections.

The legislature then put a photo ID constitutional amendment on the ballot in November 2018, which voters approved. Lawmakers followed mere weeks later to pass a separate law implementing voter ID rules, which was Monday's topic. Republicans with large enough majorities at the time overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill, resulting immediately in a lawsuit filed by minority voters.

In a 2-to-1 ruling following a three-week trial, judges found in September 2021 the implementing law was rushed through and discriminated against Black voters, violating the equal protections contained in the state constitution. In turn, according to the voters who sued, the law made it harder for Black citizens to cast ballots that could erode GOP power.

The majority wrote that dozens of Republicans, who voted both for the 2013 voter ID law and the 2018 law, knew of earlier evidence that Black residents had less access to voter ID than others. A few Democrats voted for the 2018 law, one of them a Black senator who worked with Republicans to develop it. But the minority voters who sued diminished the Democrats' role.

Lawyers for the Republican legislative leaders said voter ID is designed to bolster confidence in elections. Thirty-five states request or require some ID at the polls, with about half asking for photo identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In August, the Supreme Court’s 4-3 Democratic majority opened the door to voiding the November 2018 voter ID constitutional amendment because lawmakers who agreed to put it on the ballot were elected from districts blemished by illegal racial gerrymandering. The majority sent the case back to a lower court judge to accumulate more evidence. That decision didn’t moot the voter ID lawsuit that was heard Monday.

A federal lawsuit filed by the state NAACP and several local chapters and challenging the same November 2018 voter ID law still hasn’t gone to trial. The case could become moot if the state Supreme Court agrees with the lower court that the law is unconstitutional.

State law allows the justices to convene up to twice annually in the courthouse in Edenton, which is a former colonial capital about 115 miles (185 kilometers) northeast of Raleigh, the current capital of the state. The proceedings were live streamed.

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