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Saturday August 13th

Lawsuit calls the legitimacy of the N.C. General Assembly into question

<p>The Orange County Courthouse in 2010. DTH/Mary Lide Parker</p>
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The Orange County Courthouse in 2010. DTH/Mary Lide Parker

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently heard arguments from the NAACP and lawyers representing Republican state lawmakers regarding whether the General Assembly has the authority to put constitutional amendments on the ballot for referendum.

In the lawsuit, which was first brought forth by the North Carolina NAACP and Clean Air Carolina in August of 2018, the plaintiffs argued that the legislature was composed of members elected as a result of racially gerrymandered districts. Therefore, they claimed the legislature did not have the authority to place constitutional amendments on the ballot to be voted on.

In February, state judges struck down two of the amendments that had been voted into law last November. One of the amendments lowered the cap on the state’s income tax rate from 10 percent to 7 percent. The other instituted a requirement to show photo identification in order to vote.

The ruling drew on the principle of racially gerrymandered districts as the reason for which the amendments should not stand.

“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s Constitution,” the court's ruling said.

However, this has raised several questions as to what this means for the legislature as a whole.

When arguing before the state Court of Appeals, Martin Warf, a lawyer representing the legislators, raised the concern that this ruling could serve as a precedent to delegitimize every action the legislation has taken over the past few years.

“No court has ever said one of the remedies is striking down all the laws they passed,” he told the News & Observer, going on to say that such an action “sounds grossly unproportionate.”

However, the plaintiffs insist the scope of their inquiry is strictly limited to the constitutional amendments put on the ballot in 2018.

“He was mischaracterizing both the English language and our argument there,” said Kym Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who is representing the NAACP.

She argues the only reason Republicans were able to get the three-fifths majority necessary to place amendments on the ballot was because of the gerrymandered state maps.

She also discussed the fundamental problems caused by racial gerrymandering and the implications it may have for the state as a whole.

“How we are represented in the legislature is how people get to voice their concerns,” she said. “Our state has, at its core, popular sovereignty, and the people rule our state through the people that represent them.”

She also said she was glad the NAACP and the SELC were able to cooperate over such an important issue.

“There has to be a limit as to what those bodies can do,” she said. “Illegal actions have consequences.” 

The novelty of the issue has also raised concerns for state legislators themselves.

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who represents Chapel Hill in the N.C. House of Representatives, said she believes the case may have larger implications for the state legislature.

“We have asked the question, ‘Are any of the laws that we’ve passed in the past seven or eight years legal?'” she said. “‘Can we just say that they all violated the constitution and wipe them all out?’” 

She said legislators in the Democratic caucus have raised, and are still discussing, the issue of whether or not the General Assembly being “unconstitutionally constituted,” according to the court, voids the body’s legitimacy.

Arguments on the case will continue to be heard, with all parties preparing for the likelihood that it will wind up before the N.C. Supreme Court in the coming months.


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