A federal judge ordered state lawmakers Thursday to hand over some public records related to last year's voter ID law, rejecting an argument that legislative immunity protected them from release.
The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union and others sued the state after legislators refused to release emails and other documents related to the enactment of the controversial law tightening voting restrictions.
Proponents say the law – it requires voters to show photo identification at the polls, limits early voting times and ends same-day registration, among other provisions – is designed to protect voter integrity. The plaintiffs say those changes are designed to suppress voter turnout, especially among minorities.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake wrote in the decision that legislative immunity must be evaluated "under a flexible approach" that balances the public's right to know and the legislative process.
"The Court concludes that, while the judicially-created doctrine of 'legislative immunity' provides individual legislators with absolute immunity from liability for their legislative acts, that immunity does not preclude all discovery in the context of this case," Peake wrote.
Civil liberties groups, which are also suing Gov. Pat McCrory and the State Board of Elections over the new elections law, hailed the judge's order.
“North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a press release. “Legislators should not be shrouding their intentions in secrecy. The people deserve better.”
McCrory's office did not respond a request for comment Thursday evening. But in late February, state attorney Alexander Peters argued in court that lawmakers should be immune from having to disclose those records to protect the legislative process.
"(The plaintiffs) are saying, 'Tell us why you voted how you voted,'" Peters said. "What an individual legislator thought on that is not only irrelevant, it is not evidence of what the General Assembly intended."
The judge also ruled that additional categories of documents may be released after further hearings in the coming weeks.