NC’s highest court rules on gerrymandered legislature’s power, but the case isn’t over

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North Carolina’s state legislature was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to the extent that lawmakers may have lacked the authority to claim to represent the people, when they passed new constitutional amendments in 2018, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled Friday.

One of the state constitutional amendments in question required voters to show photo ID to cast a ballot. It has never been used, however, due to this and other lawsuits challenging it. The other banned future politicians from raising the state’s income tax rate above 7%.

Friday’s ruling doesn’t immediately overturn the amendments. Instead, the justices sent the case back to the trial level, where a judge had previously reached a similar conclusion about the legislature being too gerrymandered to amend the constitution. That initial trial court ruling needed more rigor, the Supreme Court ruled Friday, so the justices set forth a number of standards and told the judge to issue a new ruling based on that guidance.

The opinion was a 4-3 ruling along party lines. All three Republican justices dissented, saying they would have let the GOP-backed amendments stand. All four Democratic justices voted in the majority, finding that pro-Republican gerrymandering could have made the amendments illegitimate.

Justice Anita Earls’ majority opinion states that “amendments that could change basic tenets of our constitutional system of government warrant heightened scrutiny” especially when written by “legislators whose claim to represent the people’s will has been disputed.”

Voter ID and racial discrimination

This lawsuit was one of three ways that Black voters and Democrats have challenged the voter ID mandate.

This one targets the constitutional amendment itself, while two other lawsuits challenge a law that implements the amendment, calling it unconstitutional on grounds of racial discrimination. The other two lawsuits could still lead to the mandate being overturned, and they have kept it blocked so far. Despite being approved by the legislature and then by voters in the 2018 elections, voter ID has never been allowed to be used since then, due to the ongoing legal battles.

Republican lawmakers’ previous attempt at a voter ID law, in 2013, was ruled unconstitutional in federal court for being passed with explicit racial intentions.

Lawmakers requested data showing which racial groups were most or least likely to have certain forms of IDs, or when those groups voted. They then wrote the voter ID law to exclude types of IDs that Black voters were more likely to have than white voters, and eliminated days of early voting that were used more by Black voters.

The federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals called the case “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times” of racism in election laws, since the changes “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Conservatives at the legislature protested that decision, then immediately worked to pass the new 2018 version of the law, which they said should address the concerns of racism. They also sought to give it stronger protections from being undone in the future by passing it as a constitutional amendment instead of a normal law.

Constitutional amendment and a gerrymandered legislature

Constitutional amendments in North Carolina may only be proposed in one way: With a supermajority of 60% support in both the N.C. House and N.C. Senate.

The voter ID amendment passed almost entirely along party lines, with every Republican voting for it and all but a handful of Democrats opposing it.

Around the same time as that 2018 vote, a separate lawsuit determined that the district maps those lawmakers had been elected in were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to give Republicans a disproportionate amount of power. And when elections were held later that same year, using new court-ordered maps, Democrats did win enough seats to break the GOP supermajority in both chambers.

That led to the lawsuit the Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The NAACP sued, arguing that constitutional amendments shouldn’t be allowed to stand — even if the majority of voters approved them — if they only made the ballot in the first place because of unconstitutional gerrymandering.

They won the argument at trial.

“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” wrote Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins, a Democrat, in his 2019 ruling, The News & Observer reported.

However, the legislature won at the Court of Appeals, with two Republican judges ruling in favor of the GOP and a Democratic judge dissenting. One of the judges questioned whether this would lead down a slippery slope, The N&O reported, pointing out during oral arguments that the most recent version of the state constitution itself was written in 1971, when there was only a single Black lawmaker in the entire legislature.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at https://campsite.bio/underthedome or wherever you get your podcasts.