WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, Oct. 3, the seven of justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the legislative and state defendants’ appeal of a decision by a trial court to permanently block Senate Bill 824 — a law that provides a narrow list of qualifying photo IDs acceptable for voting in the state — because it was enacted with the intent, at least in part, to discriminate against African American voters in violation of the North Carolina Constitution. The appeal heard today by the North Carolina Supreme Court originates from a lawsuit brought on behalf of six voters alleging that S.B. 824 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the North Carolina Constitution.
First, the court heard from an attorney representing the legislative defendants who appealed the trial court’s decision to block S.B. 824. The attorney who defended S.B. 824’s strict photo ID requirements for voting began his arguments by asserting that “the Superior Court’s determination that S.B. 824 was motivated by a desire to entrench Republicans by targeting African American voters is unsupportable both as a matter of law and as a matter of fact.” He contended that because four Democratic legislators voted in support of the final version of the law, there is no evidence to show that the General Assembly was intent on “entrenching Republican” power when it passed the law. When asked by Chief Justice Paul Newby whether there are findings of fact from the Superior Court that the legislative defendants take issue with, the attorney responded that the Superior Court was incorrect in stating that the free state-issued voter ID was eligible for one year and clarified that it is actually eligible for 10 years. Furthermore, the attorney added that the lower court “presumed bad faith on behalf of the General Assembly” on the basis of a “past discriminatory act.” In this instance, the attorney was referring to House Bill 589, a previously enacted and even more stringent photo ID law passed by the North Carolina Legislature in 2013 that was struck down by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for unconstitutionally discriminating against Black voters. The attorney asserted that unlike H.B. 589, S.B. 824 contains a “sweeping reasonable impediment provision” that allows voters to cast provisional ballots if they lack one of the acceptable forms of identification mandated by S.B. 824. He proceeded to list other provisions of S.B. 824 that he claimed served as counter-evidence against the plaintiffs’ contention that the law was passed with a “racially discriminatory purpose.” The attorney concluded by stating that the plaintiffs have “not shown that there is anybody who would not be able to vote under this law.”
Next, the court heard from an attorney from the North Carolina Department of Justice representing the state defendants (including the state of North Carolina as well as the North Carolina State Board of Elections) who also argued in defense of S.B. 824. The attorney from the North Carolina Department of Justice commenced her argument by stating that “the trial court erred when it ruled that there the photo ID law had a discriminatory impact on voters.” When asked by Justice Anita Earls about the trial court’s finding that African American voters are more likely than white voters to lack a form of qualified ID under S.B. 824, the attorney responded by stating that “the existence of some level of inconvenience in the in the voting process does not prove discriminatory impact.” Next, Earls turned to discussing whether the North Carolina Legislature passed the challenged law with discriminatory intent. She noted that “the reason why it was significant that so many legislators [that voted for S.B. 824] had voted on the prior photo ID bill [H.B. 589], was because [they had] knowledge about the impact on voters and who had IDs and…they knew that African American voters were more likely to lack an [acceptable] ID under the law.” Furthermore, Earls stated that “ultimately, under Arlington Heights, and under the disparate impact prong…it doesn’t matter whether the Legislature ultimately was right or wrong. It was what was in their minds. What were they intending?” The attorney for the North Carolina Department of Justice replied to this line of questioning by stating that when you look at the disparate impact analysis of the challenged law, it is “clear that there is no Equal Protection violation.” She finished by asking the court to reverse the trial court’s ruling.
Next, the court heard from the attorney representing the plaintiffs — six individual voters — on behalf of whom the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of S.B. 824 was originally brought. The attorney started off by recounting that “following years of litigation…a majority of a three-judge panel concluded that Senate Bill 824 violated the North Carolina Equal Protection Clause because it was enacted with the intent to discriminate against African American voters.” Following his opening remarks, the attorney was asked by Justice Philip Berger, “What in the plain language of the law shows discriminatory intent?” The attorney responded to this question by explaining that one must look at the summation of multiple, holistic factors, including the history of racially polarized voting in North Carolina in which “African Americans tend to strongly favor Democrats, [therefore creating] an incentive for Republicans to discriminate against them for political payoffs.” Furthermore, the attorney expounded on analysis from one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Professor Kevin Quinn, who found that in North Carolina, “African Americans lack [eligible photo IDs] 1.4 times more than whites and found that nearly 7% of African Americans lack the [accepted forms of] ID, which equates to over 100,000 voters.” The attorney closed out his arguments by stating that the harm caused by S.B. 824 “falls on a particular class” that is beset by “a history of [racial] discrimination” that cannot be overlooked. He reiterated that under S.B. 824, “voters are being treated differently and that the fundamental right to vote for certain individuals is being burdened.”
Finally, the court once again heard from the attorney for the legislative defendants who gave closing arguments in defense of S.B. 824. He wrapped up his arguments by rehashing his contention that S.B. 824 was not passed to “entrench Republican power” because four Democrats voted for final passage of the bill. He asked the court to reverse the trial court’s decision or at a minimum remand (meaning, send back) the case to the lower court for application of the “proper standard.”