Raleigh, N.C. — The judge overseeing North Carolina's state-level voter ID case opened court Tuesday by reading an unusual four-minute soliloquy into the court record in response to a Raleigh think tank questioning whether he should continue to preside over the trial.
"A publication has attempted to cast aspersions on my ability to preside over this case fairly and impartially and attempted to cast aspersions on me personally," Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan said. "The publication has therefore concluded that I should recuse myself from further involvement in this matter."
Morgan did not name the publication in question, although he was clearly referencing the Civitas Institute, which has posted an online petition titled, "Mike Morgan: Recuse yourself from voter ID trial!" Civitas is a nonpartisan but conservative think tank that draws funding from donors who also back Republican candidates and causes.
Morgan ruled Tuesday that the state court trial should be put on hold unless the U.S. Supreme Court upsets lower court rulings and reinstates voter ID. That means there won't be any action in the state case in the short run, although it could fire back up at any point.
Civitas' complaint centers on the fact that Morgan is running for state Supreme Court in this fall's election. While that race is nonpartisan, it is often colored by partisan factors. Morgan is a Democrat and is running against incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican. The voter ID ruling could affect turnout in the race.
"Voter ID has been one of the biggest news stories in the last three years in North Carolina. Does anyone really think an elected local judge who had been considering a run for statewide office has no interest in what laws will govern his election?" Civitas wrote.
Democrats generally favor striking down voter ID laws, while Republicans by and large back GOP legislators who drafted the law. As well, striking down voter ID is seen as a move that will allow more people to vote, and most election observers agree members of that group are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. In a close contest, restoring voter ID could mean the difference between a win or loss for Morgan. As well, Civitas points out, the case gives Morgan a high profile position in a news story that has been prominent in the news.
Francis De Luca, Civitas' president, points out that another judge originally assigned to the same case stepped away due to an election. Civitas' original post also points out that Edmunds had to recuse himself from ruling on a case dealing with Supreme Court elections this year.
"I'm glad he's at least paying attention to it," De Luca said Tuesday when asked about Morgan's statement.
From the bench, Morgan cited an informal advisory opinion from the Judicial Standards Commission that cleared him to continue to preside.
"I have not and shall not recuse myself from this case," Morgan concluded, saying he will continue to preside "until the matter is ultimately brought to a conclusion."
De Luca said he disagrees with Morgan, although he added that the matter was moot for the time being. After this fall's election, he said, Morgan will either be on the state Supreme Court or not facing an election. At that point, De Luca said, there would be no problem with Morgan continuing to preside over the case.
"Once it goes into 2017 and he's no longer up for election, that's a different matter," he said.