Voter ID Law Struck Down by North Carolina Supreme Court
A closely divided court held that the law was racially discriminatory, but the ruling’s impact may not survive under the court’s new conservative majority.
UPDATE: On February 3, the North Carolina Supreme Court’s newly elected 5-member Republican majority granted a petition to rehear Holmes v. Moore, a case decided in December in which the court’s previous 4-member Democrat majority struck down a racially discriminatory voter ID law. The court also agreed to rehear Harper v. Hall, a case where the same bloc of justices invalidated an extreme partisan gerrymander under multiple provisions of the state constitution.
Seeking a do-over in both cases, the petitioners relied on a rarely used procedural rule that allows North Carolina’s appellate courts to review one of its own decisions. In blessing the use of this procedural maneuver, the court’s new majority opined that it was appropriate to rehear the cases to address alleged errors of law that infected the court’s initial decisions.
Justices Anita Earls and Michael Morgan jointly dissented from both orders, condemning the court’s gambit as legally unsound and nakedly partisan. The dissent observed that the court had agreed to rehear only two of 214 petitions filed since January 1993. The pair of decisions “means that in a single day, the majority has granted more petitions for rehearing than it has over the past twenty years.” The dissent characterized the decision as a “display of raw partisanship,” which gravely sullies the court’s legitimacy and sends “a smoke signal to the public that [the court’s] decisions are fleeting and [its] precedent is only as enduring as the terms of the justices who sit on the bench.”
The court is set to rehear both cases on March 14.
In December, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down a 2018 voter ID law under the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, ruling that it was enacted with racially discriminatory intent. The decision illustrates how state courts can offer voters greater protections than federal courts, but also how even those protections can be fragile.
Voter identification laws have become the subject of intense partisan conflict and numerous legal challenges in recent years. Such laws are often justified by claims that they reduce voter fraud, but the overwhelming evidence has long been clear: voter fraud is virtually nonexistent.
The 4–3 ruling in Holmes v. Moore is significant for both its articulation of a robust state-level equal protection guarantee and its fact-sensitive review of the evidence of racial discrimination. But the practical impact of this ruling may be short-lived: Holmes was one of the court’s last rulings before two conservative justices joined the bench in January, shifting the balance of power. The dissent reveals how the court’s new conservative majority is likely to construe the state constitution to evaluate cases involving voting rights and intentional discrimination.
In 2018, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring photo identification as a necessary precondition for in-person voting. During a lame-duck special session held later that year, the state legislature’s Republican supermajority enacted S.B. 824 over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to implement the constitutional amendment. The Holmes lawsuit challenging the law in state court as unconstitutional, race-based voter suppression came soon after.
The case reached North Carolina’s high court after a three-judge panel found that the law violated the state constitution because it was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose. According to expert analysis offered at trial, African American voters are approximately 39 percent less likely than white voters to have the required ID. Evidence offered to prove the discriminatory impact of the law further showed that if the law took effect, voters unable to procure an acceptable ID would be forced to navigate a cumbersome administrative process in order to vote.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anita Earls embraced the evidentiary framework adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation to test the constitutionality of S.B. 824. The court balanced a series of factors to determine whether the law was motivated by an intent to discriminate, including the law’s discriminatory impact, historical background, legislative history, and the specific events leading to its enactment.
Grappling with the constitutionality of the law, the court adhered to a common refrain: “what matters” in the Arlington Heights inquiry are “the trial court’s findings of fact.” The majority regarded many of those facts as compelling, such as statistical evidence illustrating the disproportionate racial impact of S.B. 824 and its ameliorative provisions, as well as testimony confirming that the legislature’s Republican supermajority “pushed S.B. 824” through the legislative process “with limited analysis and scrutiny.”
The court’s treatment of one case scrutinizing S.B. 824, and another examining a similarly restrictive voter ID law, further exemplifies the court’s focus on the trial court’s findings of fact. In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a lower court decision temporarily blocking the same law, concluding in the absence of a trial that there was insufficient evidence of discriminatory legislative intent under federal law.
The Holmes majority reasoned that the Fourth Circuit’s prior ruling upholding the law was “neither persuasive nor controlling authority” because “it is based on an entirely different factual record.”
The court similarly distinguished a federal challenge to a Texas voter ID law, Veasey v. Abbott. The court reasoned that the Texas legislature’s failure to follow its normal procedures when it passed the bill — found to be intentionally discriminatory — was “not the only way to demonstrate a deviation.” According to the court, while “the facts in Veaseywere “interesting,” what was important in Holmes were the facts that demonstrated “whether the North Carolina legislature deviated from its normal procedures in passing S.B. 824.”
In concluding that S.B. 824 was the product of intentional racial discrimination, the court reaffirmed that the state’s Equal Protection Clause should not be construed in lockstep with the U.S. Constitution because North Carolina’s equal protection guarantee is “more expansive than the federal right.” Emphasizing the force accorded to the provision, the court held that “a law enacted with the intent to discriminate on the basis of race is unconstitutional even if no voter ultimately is disenfranchised,” because invidious racial classifications “pose the risk of lasting harm to our society.”
Looking forward, the North Carolina Supreme Court now has a 5–2 conservative majority until at least 2028. The Holmes dissent, authored by Justice Phil Berger, suggests that this change in the court’s ideological composition may be consequential in future cases concerning restrictive voting legislation and race discrimination.
In a series of sharply worded footnotes, some directly citing public statements made by Earls regarding the court’s integrity and its commitment to dispense equal justice, Berger suggested that the court’s decision stood at odds with the values of a fair and impartial judiciary. He further claimed that the court’s grant of expedited review in the case, which allowed for a ruling before a change in the court’s composition, rested on the political views of members of the court.
On the merits, the dissent argued that the enactment of S.B. 824 was not motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose and insisted that the majority failed to presume “the good faith of the legislature,” “recharacterized” and dismissed “directly on point” precedent, and declined to extend judicial deference to the enacting legislative body. And although the North Carolina legislature may go back to the drawing board to craft a new voter ID law, the dissent signaled that a more restrictive law would pass constitutional muster in the future.
While the durability of the Holmes decision remains to be seen, for voters in North Carolina — particularly African Americans and other people of color, those living with severe disabilities, and others burdened by the law — it represents a significant pronouncement about voters’ civic dignity with an immediate impact that is real and personal.
Robyn Sanders is counsel with the Democracy Program’s Voting Rights and Elections Team.