North Carolina Supreme Court Rehears Photo ID Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, March 15, the North Carolina Supreme Court reheard Holmes v. Moore, a case that previously blocked Senate Bill 824, a law that provided a narrow list of qualifying photo IDs acceptable for voting in the state. Previously, the North Carolina Supreme Court held 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, GOP legislators filed a request asking the court to rehear the case, which was granted. 

Who were the parties involved in today’s oral argument?

  • Republican legislators: The Republican legislators requested that the North Carolina Supreme Court rehear Holmes and want the court to overturn its previous decision in the case. This side is making anti-voting arguments in an effort to reinstate North Carolina’s strict photo ID law. 
  • Voters: The voters who initially challenged S.B. 824 argue that the court’s December 2022 decision blocking the law should be affirmed. This side is making pro-voting arguments.
  • Justices: The case was reheard by the seven justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court: Chief Justice Paul Newby (R), Justice Michael Morgan (D), Justice Anita Earls (D), Justice Phillip Berger Jr. (R), Justice Tamara Barringer (R), Justice Richard Dietz (R) and Justice Trey Allen (R).

What did the Republican legislators argue today?

The Republican legislators argued that the North Carolina Supreme Court’s December 2022 decision blocking S.B. 824 should be overturned because the underlying decision from the trial court was “unsound, both legally and factually.” They also argued that the facts of the case do not prove racial discrimination, there is no “direct evidence” of discriminatory intent, the Legislature was not afforded good faith by the trial court and S.B. 824 should be implemented. 

First, the Republican legislators argued that the trial court was incorrect when it found that S.B. 824 was enacted with discriminatory intent. Justice Morgan listed the factors that led the trial court to its finding that the law was impermissible under its standard of review: “The earlier unconstitutional voter ID law [with similar provisions to S.B. 824], the earlier aspect of the legislators who passed that law now supporting the recent law that’s in front of us here, the legislative history on voter ID in this case, the law’s passage in a legislative lame duck session, the discriminatory data [and] the expert testimony.” Morgan asked: “How many more factors do you need in this case for the presumption to have been rebutted that the Legislature had discriminatory intent here?” In response, the Republican legislators argued that “the record in this case does not support a finding of discriminatory intent under any standard of review.” 

The Republican legislators also argued that the trial court did not presume enough “good faith” on the Legislature’s behalf. The Republican legislators asserted that “there is no person in North Carolina that the plaintiffs have identified who, according to the terms of S.B. 824, will not be able to vote. And it just does not speak [to] racially discriminatory intent to enact a voter ID law that allows everyone to vote” given “the availability of the free IDs.” To this point, Morgan asked about the evidence at the trial court level that showed that “African Americans disproportionately have public assistance IDs” yet public assistance IDs were originally not included in the law. Morgan read from the trial court’s decision: “The lack of the Legislature’s allowanc​​e of public assistance IDs was telling” and “it was also ‘particularly suspect because legislators could have reasonably surmised that those forms of ID would be hailed disproportionately by African American voters.’” To this, the Republican legislators replied that the example of the Legislature not allowing public assistance IDs was “a primary example of the failure to afford good faith to the Legislature” because public assistance IDs were later added but “what the trial court said was we’re not going to credit the General Assembly for that…[The trial court] presumed bad faith for not including them in the first place.” 

Next, Justice Berger asked if “direct evidence of discriminatory intent” existed in this case. The Republican legislators replied that “absolutely nothing” showing direct evidence existed in the record. The Republican legislators concluded their argument by asserting that “the General Assembly was blamed for seeking racial data” when it enacted a similar photo ID law, House Bill 589, that was struck down by a federal court, “so this time the General Assembly [did] not seek racial data and that’s held against them again; it’s like a Catch-22. Regardless of what they do, it’s going to be felt to be indicative of racially discriminatory intent.” 

What did the pro-voting party argue today?

The voters argued that the North Carolina Supreme Court’s December 2022 decision was correctly decided and S.B. 824 should remain blocked. They asserted that the trial court’s findings were correct and that under the standard of review applicable to this case, they did not need to show “direct evidence” of discriminatory intent, only that the law had a discriminatory impact. The voters rebutted the Republican legislators’ argument that the framework for proving racial discrimination was incorrectly applied by explaining that improper intent “ doesn’t have to be the only factor” needed to successfully block the law. Instead, “under the totality of the evidence standard,” applied by the trial court, “improper discriminatory intent was a factor motivating the passage of S.B. 824.” 

Justice Allen asked if “direct evidence” of racially discriminatory intent existed in this case and the voters responded that while direct evidence (such as a legislator giving a racially discriminatory floor speech) was not presented, that “does nothing to undermine the correctness of the trial court’s judgment or this court’s ruling,” particularly given that we “are fortunately well past the time where we expect to find blatant statements of racially discriminatory motive in the legislative record.” Berger asked “at what point could this identical legislation be passed by a future Legislature?” To this, the voters replied that “you need to look at everything and so if there were a subsequent attempt…to pass a future voter identification law, we would again need to look at all of the circumstantial evidence and see how that bears on whether or not there’s an inference of discriminatory intent.” The voters concluded their argument by stating that “a trial court’s finding is not wrong just because you might also be able to draw a different conclusion from the facts. That’s all the [Republican legislators] are asking this court to do: draw their preferred inference from the facts.” 

What’s next?

Following today’s rehearing, the North Carolina Supreme Court could issue a decision either affirming or reversing its prior decision in Holmes at any time. 

Read our Twitter thread covering oral argument here.

Learn more about the case here.