The court handling the challenges to the voting law changes enacted by the General Assembly last session ruled today that the doctrine of legislative immunity did not give legislators absolute protection from having to disclose some emails and other documents generated while those changes were being considered.
“North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Legislators should not be shrouding their intentions in secrecy. The people deserve better.”
In League of Women Voters of North Carolina et al. v. North Carolina, Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake wrote:
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; instead, claims of legislative immunity or privilege in the discovery context must be evaluated under a flexible approach that considers the need for the information in the context of the particular suit presented, while still protecting legislative sovereignty and minimizing any direct intrusion into the legislative process.
The Court must consider the context of this suit under the Voting Rights Act in making a particularized determination of the extent of any privilege, balancing the need for obtaining the information with the impact on legislative sovereignty and the need to “insure that legislators are not distracted from or hindered in the performance of their legislative tasks.” In undertaking this inquiry, the Court notes that many of the documents requested by the subpoenas and discovery requests involve communications with outside parties or are other documents that are considered public records under state law. Requiring production of those documents is not unduly burdensome or invasive of the legislative process. However, other categories of documents may require further scrutiny in balancing the competing interests. In addition, the protections of the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine can also be claimed by the individual legislators, and those issues have not been addressed in detail as to the specific requests presented.
“Today’s ruling is good news for every North Carolinian who values integrity and transparency in our elections,” Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, added. “The public has a right to know how and why officials drafted legislation making it harder for North Carolinians to vote, and with today’s ruling, we can hopefully get to the bottom of those questions.”
Read more here about this chapter of the litigation pending in federal court in Winston-Salem.
Read the court’s full order here.