The 5-2 Republican majority on the N.C. Supreme Court overturned Harper v. Hall, a case decided by the court's previous Democratic majority that determined congressional and state House maps drawn by the N.C. General Assembly unfairly favored Republicans.
Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote the opinion. He opened by saying that the state should return to "fundamental principles" outlined in the state constitution, which he argued gives the legislature full power over redistricting.
A reheard case is unusual at the state Supreme Court level in North Carolina. A petition for rehearing had been granted by the court only twice in the past 30 years prior to its granting of two petitions in February, just weeks after they were decided.
Previous decisions in Harper, Newby wrote, provided unclear guidelines for redistricting, and accepted the legislative defendants' argument that that lack of guidance set the court up to fail.
He wrote that partisan gerrymandering is a political question and is therefore not justiciable, just as he did in the dissent in the original Harper decision in December. The N.C. General Assembly will have full power over redistricting, which needs to be completed before the 2024 elections.
The previous majority had ruled that the claims were justiciable because the right to a fair vote is protected under the state constitution.
“In a single blow, the majority strips millions of voters of this state of their fundamental, constitutional rights and delivers on the threat that 'our decisions are fleeting, and our precedent is only as enduring as the terms of the justices who sit on the bench,'" Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote in her dissent on the new decision.
She went on to argue that the legislative defendants — including House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, Rutherford) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) — want a "do over," and want to draw "even more egregiously gerrymandered maps."
"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 this court's reputation for independence," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a tweet. "Republican legislators wanted a partisan court that would issue partisan opinions and that's exactly what this is."
Holmes v. Moore
The Supreme Court also overturned Holmes v. Moore on Friday. The decision challenges a December ruling from the outgoing Democratic majority, which said vote ID provisions purposefully targeted Black voters.
An amendment enshrining a voter ID law into the state constitution was passed in the 2018 election in a statewide referendum, but the corresponding state law was struck down shortly after because it was deemed intentionally discriminatory.
Associate Justice Philip Berger Jr. — the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who is a named defendant in the case — wrote in the court’s opinion that the judicial branch should show “great deference to acts of the General Assembly,” since it represents the will of the people.
Berger wrote that voter ID laws do not violate Article I Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution, which states that no person should be subject to discrimination by the state because of the color of their skin.
"In no way do the hypothetical 'disparate inconveniences' claimed by plaintiffs amount to a 'denial or abridgment of the right to vote,' let alone a denial or abridgment based on race," he wrote in the opinion.
"Nearly five years after the voters of this state overwhelmingly voted in favor of photo ID at the polls, it has finally become the law of the land," Moore said in a tweet. "We will fulfill our constitutional duty to redraw state house, senate and congressional maps."
Associate Justice Michael Morgan dissented, pointing out three instances in which members of the court's Republican majority — Newby, Berger and Associate Justice Tamara Barringer — claimed that the previous Democratic majority was acting out of "judicial activism" or clouded by their personal beliefs and that the justices have not been transparent about their motivations to introduce partisan politics to the court.
"Perhaps the Chief Justice said it best when he once chose to dissent from a majority opinion of this Court when decrying judicial activism: 'The ultimate damage to our jurisprudence and public trust and confidence in our judicial system is yet to be determined,'" Morgan wrote in his dissent.
Community Success Initiative v. Moore
Among several other decisions, the N.C. Supreme Court also ruled on Community Success Initiative v. Moore, deciding that people with felony convictions who are on parole, probation or post-release supervision are not allowed to vote under the state constitution.
A lower court ruling from 2022 said the denial of voting rights to people on probation, parole or post-release supervision violates the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because the denial discriminates against Black individuals and restricts all people on felony supervision from their voting rights.
But in the Supreme Court opinion, Associate Justice Trey Allen wrote that the state constitution binds the state to uphold the disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions.
“It is not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process,” Allen wrote.
He disputed the lower court’s claim that denying people with felony convictions the right to vote is racially discriminatory, partially because the courts did not take into account the “good faith” of the 1971 legislature that enacted the disenfranchisement law.
Allen also wrote that, because Black North Carolinians make up 42 percent of the overall felon population and because they also make up 42 percent of those denied the franchise under the provision, the provision is not racially discriminatory.
Earls wrote the dissent in the case and argued that the majority substituted the trial court’s facts for its own, and because it “(justifies) the denial of a basic human right to citizens and thereby perpetuates a vestige of slavery.”
“The majority interprets the North Carolina Constitution to reduce the humanity of individuals convicted of felony offenses to the point of cruelty: People who are convicted of felony offenses are no longer people, they are felons,” she wrote. “The majority believes that, as felons, they are not free even after their sentences are complete, they are merely felons for the rest of their lives.”
@DTHCityState | firstname.lastname@example.org
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