The newly Republican-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday reversed two decisions made by the same court last year when it had a Democratic majority on redistricting and voter ID, and issued a third ruling denying voting rights for some felons. The court under Democratic control had struck down districts drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly on the grounds that they were illegally gerrymandered for partisan reasons. The justices had also struck down a 2018 voter ID law, saying it was racially discriminatory. A lower court had restored voting rights to people convicted of felonies who were out of prison but remained under state supervision. 

Redistricting Decision

In Friday’s Harper v. Hall decision, the court said that claims about partisan gerrymandering are political questions for other branches of government to decide. “We are designed to be a government of the people, not of the judges,” the majority wrote. “At its heart, this case is about recognizing the proper limits of judicial power.”

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said the court was following the “marching orders” of the General Assembly, in which Republicans have a supermajority in both the House and Senate. “The Republican State Supreme Court has ignored the constitution and followed the marching orders of the Republican legislature by declaring open season for their extreme partisan gerrymandering and is destroying the court’s reputation for independence,” Cooper said in a statement Friday. “Republican legislators wanted a partisan court that would issue partisan opinions and that’s exactly what this is,” Cooper said. Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, also referenced partisan courts. “For years plaintiffs and activist courts have manipulated our Constitution to achieve policy outcomes that could not be won at the ballot box,” Berger said in a statement.

“Today’s rulings affirm that our Constitution cannot be exploited to fit the political whims of left-wing Democrats,” Berger said. House Democratic Leader Robert Reives said the Supreme Court decision “further erodes the trust North Carolinians have in fair elections.” “Our state needs independent redistricting to ensure that voters can choose their politicians rather than politicians choosing their voters,” Reives said in a statement shortly after the decisions. 

Voter ID Law

Challengers failed to prove lawmakers discriminated by passing the voter ID law, the court said Friday. “This Court has traditionally stood against the waves of partisan rulings in favor of the fundamental principle of equality under the law. We recommit to that fundamental principle and begin the process of returning the judiciary to its rightful place as “the least dangerous” branch,” the court wrote Friday in the Holmes v. Moore decision.

Both the voter ID and partisan gerrymandering decisions under the previous makeup of the NC Supreme Court were made in December, after Democrats lost the majority and before Republicans took office in January. Those two December rulings were 4-3 decisions along party lines with all the court’s Democrats in the majority and all the Republicans dissenting. The makeup now is 5-2, with Republicans in in the majority. After the Democratic-majority court decision in December, House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, said “the lame duck Supreme Court of North Carolina has issued yet another opinion that defies the will of the majority of North Carolinians who voted for the implementation of a photo ID requirement.” 

Moore told The News and Observer this past fall, before the election, that Republicans would take up more voting legislation if they gained more power. Voter ID, which requires a photo identification card to vote, was passed as a constitutional amendment by voters in 2018. Friday’s decision struck down the law that implemented the voter ID mandate by detailing what IDs are allowed. Voters have not been required to show ID in elections since the law passed, as the implementation has been tied up in state and federal courts. 

Felony Convictions

The high court on Friday reversed a trial court order saying that North Carolinians with prior felony convictions must be allowed to register and vote. In Friday’s ruling, written by Republican Justice Trey Allen, the court found that it is “not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process.” 

Previously, under North Carolina law, people serving a felony sentence could not register or vote until their sentence ended, including any period of probation, parole or post-release supervision. But in the lawsuit, Community Success Initiative v. Moore, nonprofits argued that this disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated voters was unconstitutional, that it disproportionately affected Black residents, and that voters should not have to wait to be eligible to vote but should have those rights restored after leaving prison or jail, as previously reported by The News & Observer.

In May, the state Supreme Court agreed to take over the lawsuit rather than wait for other courts to determine if the superior court was right to loosen restrictions.

This story appears courtesy of our media partner The Charlotte Observer.

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