NC appeals court upholds voter ID, tax cap amendments

Posted September 15, 2020 11:39 a.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2020 7:24 p.m. EDT

— The state Court of Appeals has overturned a trial-court ruling voiding amendments to North Carolina's constitution that voters approved two years ago, calling for people to present photo identification at the polls and lowering the cap on the state income tax rate.

Four of six amendments on the ballot in November 2018 passed, but the NAACP challenged only the voter ID and the 7 percent income tax cap. The group argued that the proposals never should have gone to a referendum because dozens of the lawmakers who put the amendments on the ballot were elected in illegally gerrymandered districts.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins agreed with the NAACP last year, putting the amendments on hold. But the Court of Appeals threw out his decision in a 2-1 ruling that will next go to the state Supreme Court.

"We conclude that the Superior Court erred in holding that our General Assembly lost its power granted by our state constitution ... simply because a federal court had determined that the maps contained too many majority-minority districts, such that some members elected to that body were from districts that were illegally gerrymandered based on race," Judge Chris Dillon wrote for the majority. "It is simply beyond our power to thwart the otherwise lawful exercise of constitutional power by our legislative branch to pass bills proposing amendments."

Judge Donna Stroud wrote in a concurring opinion that declaring the General Assembly invalid because of some gerrymandered districts wouldn't allow any legislative action – even drawing new voting districts – which would create chaos.

"In our role as an error-correcting court, this court has no power to affirm the trial court’s order because it is not based upon law," Stroud wrote.

But Judge Reuben Young argued in a dissenting opinion that the choice isn't an all-or-nothing one, but instead is "a spectrum, illuminated with shades of gray." In that context, he said, "a narrow ruling that the General Assembly, being unconstitutionally formed, cannot amend the Constitution, is a reasonable interpretation of our laws."

"It's a great day for democracy that our citizens can have confidence their vote on critical issues for our economy and our elections systems will count and not be overridden by activist courts," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement.

"The ruling from the court today is a stop on the way to justice," Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, which supports the NAACP lawsuit, said in a statement. "We are swiftly moving forward with this fight because the General Assembly of North Carolina does not have unchecked power to transform the foundational document of our state that they acquired illegally through discriminatory means."

"This is an issue of first impression. I think the fact there were three different opinions on this makes clear how important of an issue this is to be settled at that level," Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which also supports teh lawsuit, said of the appeal.

Because of other lawsuits, voter ID remains on hold, and no identification will be required of voters during the upcoming general election.

WRAL Capitol Bureau Chief Laura Leslie contributed to this report.

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