WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Dec. 16, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a 4-3 opinion affirming a trial court’s decision to permanently block Senate Bill 824, a 2018 law that provides a narrow list of qualifying photo IDs acceptable for voting in the state. A majority of the court found that the “law was enacted with discriminatory intent to disproportionately disenfranchise and burden African-American voters in North Carolina.” This decision arose from a 2018 lawsuit brought by the Southern Coalition for Justice on behalf of individual voters challenging S.B. 824 for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the North Carolina Constitution and arguing that it was passed with the intent to discriminate against African American voters. On Sept. 17, 2021, a three-judge panel of a state trial court permanently blocked S.B. 824 from being enforced, finding that it was passed with the intent, at least in part, to racially discriminate against African American voters in violation of the state constitution. Following this decision, the state and legislative defendants appealed this decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, but the plaintiffs then asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to take over the case before the appellate court heard the appeal in order to avoid a delay in the resolution of the lawsuit. The North Carolina Supreme Court accepted the petition and heard oral argument on Oct. 3.
In today’s 4-3 opinion, a majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision holding that S.B. 824 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the North Carolina Constitution because it was enacted with “impermissible” racially discriminatory intent. Specifically, the court held that “the evidence considered by the trial court supports its conclusion that S.B. 824 has a disparate impact and that this impact ‘bears more heavily on one race than another,’ namely on African-American voters.” In its opinion, the majority acknowledged that “North Carolina also has a long history of race discrimination generally and race-based voter suppression in particular.” The opinion aptly noted that even though photo ID laws such as S.B. 824 may appear to be ostensibly “race-neutral on their face,” they may “‘nevertheless ha[ve] profoundly discriminatory effects.’” The majority further underscored the salient point that “[w]hether African-American voters are able to overcome the barriers S.B. 824 disproportionately places in their path does not change the fact that disparate impact exists, nor does it change the intent of the North Carolina General Assembly in passing the law.”
Additionally, the opinion highlighted the preponderance of evidence considered by the trial court that substantiated the plaintiffs’ claims regarding the racially discriminatory impacts of S.B. 824 and ultimately led that court to “determine a disparate impact existed, finding as a fact that the ameliorative provisions of the statute did not have their purported effect.” For instance, the trial court “found that evidence showed that for some voters, obtaining a qualifying ID, even a free ID, would not actually be cost-free or burden-free. And these burdens would weigh more heavily on African-American voters. For example, Jabari Holmes, one of the named plaintiffs, would face significant obstacles in obtaining a free ID card because of his disabilities and his family’s income status.”
Lastly, the opinion discussed why the legislative history of S.B. 824, which was enacted during a lame-duck legislative session over the governor’s veto, provided further evidence to prove that the law was passed with discriminatory intent. On this point, the majority found that the “trial court concluded that the legislative history of S.B. 824 indicated that the General Assembly intended to target African-Americans voters in order to entrench the Republican majority. To reach this conclusion, the trial court analyzed four actions: (1) the rushed passage of the law; (2) the fact that proposed amendments that could have benefited African-American voters were rejected; (3) the fact that S.B. 824 as written did not show an attempt to cure the racial disparities embodied in H.B. 589; and (4) the little involvement by Democratic lawmakers in S.B. 824’s consideration and enactment.” The majority concluded that “given the rarity of voter fraud in North Carolina, a less restrictive law could have been sufficient to deter voter fraud and promote voter confidence in elections had this goal been the law’s only actual purpose.”
Notably, the 2018 photo ID amendment out of which S.B. 824 arose is simultaneously being challenged (along with another amendment) in a separate lawsuit, North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. Moore. In that lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the amendments — which were placed on the ballot by an unconstitutionally apportioned General Assembly after districts were found to be racially gerrymandered — are unlawful because the legislators did not have the authority to propose the challenged amendments. On Aug. 19, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that North Carolina state legislators who were elected under racially gerrymandered districts do not possess unlimited authority to amend the North Carolina Constitution. While the court did not strike down the photo ID amendment altogether, it did remand the case back down to the trial court for further proceedings with instructions for assessing whether the photo ID amendment (along with another challenged amendment) should be “retroactively invalidated.”