Federal appeals court backs NC voter ID law

Unanimous panel reverses lower court, paving way to require voter ID in next state election, though legal avenues remain.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RICHMOND, VA. — A 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously reversed a lower court's ruling on voter ID on Wednesday, paving the way to require photo identification in the state's next elections.
The panel of three judges said the lower court made numerous errors and "abused its discretion" in blocking the state from requiring photo ID during the November elections, a requirement voters wrote into the North Carolina constitution in 2018.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs blocked implementation a year ago, pointing in part to past evidence of racial discrimination in North Carolina and a previous federal court decision to block a 2013 voter ID law as discriminatory.
The 4th Circuit judges acknowledged in their opinion Wednesday that there is "a long and shameful history of race-based voter suppression in North Carolina," but they said courts must presume legislatures act in good faith when laws are passed.

"The outcome hinges on the answer to a simple question: How much does the past matter?" the judges said in their opinion. "A legislature’s past acts do not condemn the acts of a later legislature, which we must presume acts in good faith."

The judges also said Biggs' decision to block voter ID during the past elections was riddled with "fundamental legal errors."

With the 4th Circuit's decision, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement that voter ID "must be implemented for the next election cycle in our state." Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he was "heartened" by the decision, and he criticized Biggs as an activist judge who overturned "the will of millions of North Carolinians who added a voter ID requirement to their own constitution."

Multiple paths remain, though, for opponents of the photo ID law. The decision dealt with an injunction blocking implementation of the requirement, but a full trial on the constitutionality of that requirement is still to come in federal court.

WRAL News has reached out to the state NAACP, which brought the case, and to attorneys involved for comment on next steps.

A separate lawsuit was also filed targeting the voter ID law at the state court level, and there's a third lawsuit targeting multiple amendments to the state constitution, including voter ID. All three cases remain active.

But the 4th Circuit judges noted Wednesday that North Carolina's voter ID law "is more protective of the right to vote" than other states’ voter ID laws that courts have approved. They pointed to court decisions in other cases targeting other states' voter ID laws and said they disagreed with Biggs, whose injunction hinged on her belief that the NAACP would likely prove at trial that the North Carolina legislature passed this law with discriminatory intent.

"Given these cases, it is hard to say that the 2018 Voter-ID Law does not sufficiently go out of its way to make its impact as burden-free as possible," the judges wrote.

North Carolina's voter ID law accepts a wide range of IDs, provides for free IDs and says voters can attest that they couldn't get a qualifying ID and still cast a ballot.

This federal case was argued before the 4th Circuit in September before three judges: Pamela Harris, Julius Richardson and Marvin Quattlebaum. Richardson wrote Wednesday's opinion, and the other two judges signed on.

Quattlebaum and Richardson were appointed to the court by President Donald Trump and Harris by former President Barack Obama.

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