WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, April 28, the new GOP majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a 5-2 decision overturning the court’s own decision in Holmes v. Moore. In Holmes, the North Carolina Supreme Court previously blocked Senate Bill 824, a suppressive voting law that narrowed the list of qualifying photo IDs acceptable for voting in the state. Today’s contradictory decision from the new Republican majority comes just four months after the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a final decision ruling that the law violated the state constitution because it was enacted with “impermissible” racially discriminatory intent. In January 2023, after the majority on the court flipped from Democratic to Republican following the 2022 midterm elections, the North Carolina Supreme Court’s new Republican majority agreed to rehear the case following a request from Republican legislators asking the court to do so. The North Carolina Supreme Court reheard the case on March 15 and issued its decision overturning Holmes today.
In today’s decision reinstating S.B. 824, the court’s Republican majority held that the plaintiffs “failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that S.B. 824 was enacted with discriminatory intent or that the law actually produces a meaningful disparate impact along racial lines.” This ruling from the court’s new Republican majority stands in stark contrast to that of the previous Democratic majority, which 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 previous opinion, the then-Democratic majority also acknowledged that “North Carolina also has a long history of race discrimination generally and race-based voter suppression in particular” and 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.’”
Ironically, the Republican-penned majority opinion also spoke of judicial restraint, despite the fact that the court made the unprecedented decision to rehear the case in the wake of a change in majority partisanship and no changes in the facts of the case. Justice Phil Berger (R) wrote:
The people of North Carolina overwhelmingly support voter identification and other efforts to promote greater integrity and confidence in our elections. Subjective tests and judicial sleight of hand have systematically thwarted the will of the people and the intent of the legislature. But no court exists for the vindication of political interests, and judges exceed constitutional boundaries when they act as a superlegislature. This Court has traditionally stood against the waves of partisan rulings in favor of the fundamental principle of equality under the law.
In an impassioned dissent, Justice Michael Morgan (D) wrote:
Rather than abide by that lofty philosophy which has always permeated the fabric of this Court, the majority instead prefers to dismember both state and federal jurisprudence in order to demonstrate its alacrity to brandish its audacity to achieve its purposes, all while claiming to act in the name of judicial restraint.
Today’s decision was not only a loss for voters in North Carolina, specifically Black voters who will be disproportionately burdened by S.B. 824’s strict photo ID requirements, but is also a significant mark on the court’s integrity. The decision to rehear this case was unprecedented and, as the voters who initially challenged the law pointed out, neither “the law nor the facts have changed since this Court issued its opinion affirming the trial court’s judgment on 16 December 2022.” In his dissent from the decision to rehear Holmes, Democratic Justice Michael Morgan, one of the two Democrats on the court, wrote that “[t]here is no aspect of the case at issue…which meets the historically and purposefully high standards to qualify for” rehearing. Morgan concluded his dissent with a pointed statement about the the Republicans’ feigned judicial restraint, “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.’”