N. Carolina justices hand GOP big wins with election rulings

FILE - This photo provided by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts shows Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. In massive victories for Republicans, the newly GOP-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday, April 28, 2023, threw out a previous ruling against gerrymandered voting maps and upheld a photo voter identification law that colleagues had struck down as racially biased. (North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts via AP, File)

RALEIGH — In massive victories for Republicans, the newly GOP-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday threw out a previous ruling against gerrymandered voting maps and upheld a photo voter identification law that colleagues had struck down as racially biased. 

The partisan gerrymandering ruling should make it significantly easier for the Republican-dominated legislature to help the GOP gain seats in the narrowly divided U.S. House when state lawmakers redraw congressional boundaries for the 2024 elections. Under the current map, Democrats won seven of the state’s 14 congressional seats last November. 

The court, which became a Republican majority this year following the election of two GOP justices, ruled after revisiting redistricting and voter ID opinions made in December by the court’s previous iteration, when Democrats held a 4-3 seat advantage. The court held rehearings in March. 

Friday’s 5-2 rulings also mean that state lawmakers should have greater latitude in drawing General Assembly seat boundaries for elections next year and the rest of the decade, and that the voter ID law approved by the legislature in late 2018 could be carried out soon. 

In another court decision Friday along party lines, the state justices overturned a trial court decision on when the voting rights of people convicted of felonies are restored. That means tens of thousands of people will have to complete their probation or parole and pay any fines to qualify to vote again. 

Republican legislators celebrated the sweeping series of favorable decisions that are assuredly the result of the changing makeup of the state’s highest court. Outside groups spent millions on the two Supreme Court campaigns in 2022. 

“The decisions handed down today by the NC Supreme Court have ensured that our constitution and the will of the people of North Carolina are honored,” House Speaker Tim Moore said in a news release. 

But the remaining Democratic justices and their allies lambasted the decisions that reversed new precedents on redistricting and voter ID. 

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who leads a national Democratic group whose affiliate helped support the redistricting litigation, said Friday’s mapping decision was “a function of political personnel and partisan opportunism” by Republicans. 

“History will not be kind to this court’s majority, which will now forever be stained for irreparably harming the legitimacy and reputation of North Carolina’s highest tribunal,” Holder said. 

Chief Justice Paul Newby, writing the majority opinion in the redistricting case, said that the previous Democratic majority erred by declaring that the state constitution outlawed extensive partisan gerrymandering. The court last year struck down maps the General Assembly drew because they said it gave Republicans outsized electoral advantage compared to their voting power. 

But Newby said a partisan gerrymandering prohibition is absent from the plain language of the constitution. He argued that current and former colleagues who declared otherwise had wrongly wrested power away from the General Assembly, which the state constitution designates as the mapmakers. 

“In its decision today, the Court returns to its tradition of honoring the constitutional roles assigned to each branch,” Newby wrote. “This case is not about partisan politics, but rather about realigning the proper roles of the judicial and legislative branches.” 

Associate Justice Anita Earls, writing the dissenting opinion, said the court correctly ruled last year to ensure all North Carolina residents “regardless of political party, were not denied their ‘fundamental right to vote on equal terms.’ … Today, the majority strips the people of this right.” 

On voter ID, the Republican majority reversed a trial court decision that struck down the 2018 law. The trial court had ruled that GOP legislators passed the law in part to retain General Assembly control by discouraging Black Democrats from voting in legislative elections. But Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote, in part, that the trial judges erred in relying on a federal court ruling striking down a 2013 voter ID law as tainted by racial discrimination. 

Although a federal lawsuit challenging the voter ID law is still pending, the State Board of Elections said Friday that staff would start working toward “a smooth rollout” of the ID requirement with municipal elections this fall. 

Voters also previously approved a separate photo voter ID mandate for the state constitution, although that amendment remains stuck in litigation that wouldn’t affect Friday’s ruling. 

On the process for restoring voting rights, the court upheld a law passed in 1973 — when Democrats controlled the legislature — that automatically restored voting rights only after the “unconditional discharge of an inmate, of a probationer, or of a parolee.” 

A panel of trial court judges last year declared that the law disproportionately harmed black offenders and violated the constitution. The plaintiffs’ lawyers said the 1973 law remained rooted in Reconstruction-era efforts by white Democratic politicians to intentionally prevent black residents from voting. 

Most of the people affected by the law — about 56,000 on probation, parole or supervision at the time of a 2021 trial — got the chance to vote last November. 

Associate Justice Trey Allen wrote in the majority opinion that the trial court “wrongly imputed” discriminatory views of 19th century lawmakers upon others who later “made it easier for eligible felons of all races to regain their voting rights.” 

“It is not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process,” Allen wrote.