In a potentially pivotal decision last week, the North Carolina Supreme Court indicated that a constitutional amendment requiring voter ID in the state could yet be nullified if it is found that the lawmakers who passed it lacked the authority to do so because of unlawful gerrymandering of legislative districts, as the Raleigh News * Observer reports.
The amendment at issue was passed in 2018 by a legislature the composition of which has been challenged in court by those who claim that districts were drawn in a racially discriminatory manner contrary to law.
In a party line result, the state’s Democrat-majority high court ruled 4-3 that the voter ID amendment is in jeopardy of nullification, but the panel did not outright overturn the law – which has yet to be implemented – pending further review of the gerrymandering issues in a lower court.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anita Earls’ declared, “amendments that could change basic tenets of our constitutional system of government warrant heightened scrutiny,” particularly when drafted by “legislators whose claim to represent the people’s will has been disputed.”
Offering a dissent, Justice Phil Berger Jr. opined, as the AP noted, that the Republican legislature may want to seek guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, writing, “Striking at the very heart of our form of government, the majority unilaterally reassigns constitutional duties and declares that the will of the judges is superior to the will of the people of North Carolina. At what point does the seizure of popular sovereignty by this Court violate the federal constitution.”
The decision reverses a state appeals court finding that the amendment was valid, and it remands the case to Wake County Superior Court, where a judge earlier ruled that the legislature was indeed gerrymandered to a degree that would precluded amendments to the constitution.
According to the high court decision, that initial ruling at the trial court level demands additional rigor and review, and the panel issued a series of standards and questions the judge below must use to settle the gerrymandering question, which will in turn, dictate what may happen with the voter ID amendment.
Reactions pour in
Reacting to the state high court’s ruling was Deborah Maxwell, head of the North Carolina NAACP, who stated, according to the News & Observer, “Today’s decision sends a watershed message in favor of accountability and North Carolina democracy. Rigging elections by trampling on the rights of Black voters has consequences.”
Caitlin Swain of Forward justice praised the outcome, saying that it is “the perfect illustration of how the concept of checks and balances in our democracy is supposed to work.”
Republican state Sen. Paul Newton, however, voiced an opposing take on the ruling, saying, “Four Democratic justices have all but thrown out the legitimate votes of millions of North Carolinians in a brazen, partisan attempt to remove the voter ID requirement from our Constitution and deny the people the ability to amend their own Constitution,” the News & Observer further noted.
“This is a direct attack on our democratic form of government from the most activist court in the state’s history,” he added.
House Speaker Tim Moore joined the chorus of dissent, saying, “This party-line ruling is in direct contradiction to the rule of law and the will of the voters. The people of North Carolina will not stand for the blatant judicial activism and misconduct that has seized our state’s highest court.” Though he also vowed to continue fighting for the amendment as written in the face of what he called a “judicial coup,” it remains to be seen whether that battle will indeed entail an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.