Courts & the Law, News

Ballot battles: GOP pushes again for voter ID, ACLU challenges roadblock to voting by mail

With the start of early voting in North Carolina for the 2020 election set to commence in just over three months, court battles over access to the ballot are picking up steam.

As Policy Watch reported last month, state Republicans have not given up on their effort to require voter ID for in-person voting this fall despite state and federal court orders enjoining the statutory scheme that was enacted in the aftermath of voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment on the subject. Yesterday, GOP lawmakers filed a motion in state Superior Court asking that the current state court-issued bar on voter ID be lifted in response to legislation enacted during the legislative short session that expanded the number of ID’s that would considered acceptable under state law.

Opponents of voter ID say that there are many other ways in which such a requirement suppresses voter participation and that mere expansion of the number of acceptable forms of identification fails to cure the problem.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit this morning challenging what they say is another major impediment to the franchise in the state’s absentee ballot/voting-by-mail requirements. This from a release distributed by the ACLU of North Carolina:

RALEIGH, N.C. — The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina, and Sullivan & Cromwell filed a lawsuit today challenging absentee ballot witness requirements that needlessly put North Carolinians at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The lawsuit seeks to block provisions in state law that require voters who submit a mail-in absentee ballot to have at least one witness sign their ballot return envelope, even in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic. The case was brought on behalf of several voters, including some who have chronic conditions placing them at risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

The state recently passed a law that temporarily reduces the requirement from two witnesses to one for purposes of “an election held in 2020,” but, the lawsuit notes, “the adoption of this temporary regime does not ameliorate the severe health risks caused by witnessing ballots during COVID-19 and merely reflects an acknowledgement on the state’s part that the witness requirements are at odds with public health. Both the original and the temporary witness requirements necessitate face-to-face and hand-to-hand interaction between voters and others who pose a potentially fatal risk to the voter’s health.”

“No one should be forced to choose between their health and their vote. Removing the witness requirements in the middle of a deadly pandemic just makes sense. It is an obvious and common-sense solution that protects people’s health and their right to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

North Carolina is one of only 12 states that require an individual submitting an absentee ballot to have a witness sign their ballot envelope. It is one of only three states that require two witness signatures on absentee ballots. Some of these states have recently suspended these requirements, or have been required to suspend them, on the grounds that they unduly burden the right to vote….

The lawsuit cites violations of the state Constitution’s fundamental right to vote.

Systemic health and social inequities have meant that Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic. And while people of all ages have contracted and died from COVID-19, it is particularly fatal for older individuals and poses greater risks for people with preexisting heart and respiratory conditions and those with compromised immune systems….

The ACLU is asking the court to block the state from enforcing the witness requirements while COVID-19 emergency orders are in place and/or community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring, and order it to issue guidance instructing city and county election officials to count otherwise validly cast absentee ballots that are missing witness signatures.

Click here to view the complaint and here to view a summary of the case.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, News

Governor’s office will appeal judge’s ruling on opening bowling alleys

Judge James Gale – Image: nccourts.gov

Governor Roy Cooper’s office announced this afternoon that it will file an appeal of a state judge’s ruling granting a preliminary injunction in favor of bowling alley owners who had sued to be allowed to reopen facilities that had been ordered closed to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

In his 33-page ruling, Senior Business Court Judge James Gale found that the Governor’s office had failed to offer a rational basis for distinguishing between bowling establishments and other businesses such as restaurants that have been permitted to reopen under restricted circumstances and that the bowling businesses are likely to suffer irreparable harm if not allowed to reopen right away.

Gale’s ruling then went on to provide and endorse a list of 14 very specific requirements developed by the bowling industry with which alley operators must comply in order to be protected by the injunction. Among the requirements: the presence of at least one empty lane between bowling parties and no sharing of bowling balls, except by members of the same family.

Late this afternoon, a spokesperson for the governor issued the following statement in response to the judge’s ruling:

“Hospitalizations and positive cases are reaching record highs while the Governor works to get schools open and prevent the state from going backward on restrictions. The Governor will immediately appeal this ruling that harms both of these efforts.”

Raleigh’s News & Observer reported earlier today that “COVID-19 hospitalizations in North Carolina set a new record, rising to at least 989.”

Click here to read Judge Gale’s ruling.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

WATCH: Chief Justice Beasley delivers virtual State of the Judiciary address

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address Friday online.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley virtually delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address today during the North Carolina Bar Association’s Annual Meeting.

The meeting was held online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Beasley’s address focused on the judicial branch’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the modernization of the courts through the eCourts initiative and a commitment to access to justice, fairness and impartiality.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges that the modern judiciary and our courts have never before faced, and calls for racial justice have gripped the nation’s attention,” Beasley said. “But challenging times also present opportunities. COVID-19 has required us to think creatively about improving the administration of justice in ways that even a year ago seemed impossible. The demonstrations happening in North Carolina and across the nation have given us the opportunity to confront disparities in our justice system and ensure that the people of this state have trust and confidence that courts are a place where every case is decided based on principles of law and justice free from bias.

“And so, while this is truly an unprecedented and stressful time for our entire Judicial Branch and for the Bar, it is also an immensely hopeful time.”

Beasley is the North Carolina Supreme Court’s first Black female Chief Justice. She was appointed to the helm by Gov. Roy Cooper over a year ago after former Chief Justice Mark Martin resigned. Watch her full address below.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, immigration, News

North Carolina dreamers heartened for their futures after Supreme Court ruling

Jocelyn Casanova

T he day before Jocelyn Casanova graduated high school, her mother told her she was an undocumented immigrant. She had crossed the desert with her when Casanova was just 4 years old in the hopes of finding a better life and of giving her daughter more opportunity.

“It was just kind of like ripping a Band-aid off,” said Casanova, 24, of finding out.

She wasn’t mad at her mother, but learning about her past meant her future was in jeopardy. She had already applied to colleges and wanted to pursue a career in law, but had to put those plans on hold because of her immigration status.

When the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented people from deportation who were brought into the country as children, she became a recipient, but there were still a lot of obstacles to her pursuing her goals.

She had to pay out of state tuition to go to a community college in North Carolina, where she grew up, and she couldn’t apply for federal aid. She worked three jobs to pay for school, and still, it wasn’t always enough.

“I’ve had to get really creative as far as bettering myself,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.

That includes putting aside dreams of becoming an immigration attorney in order to learn new skills and soak up all the opportunities she is afforded, in part because of DACA. Most recently, she was able to get an engineering degree through a company sponsorship and she works now as a software engineer in Raleigh. She continues to take classes at Wake Tech.

When the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program in 2017, it instilled a sense of fear in Casanova. She lived in the U.S. almost her entire life, but could suddenly be deported to a land mostly strange to her. She thought she was dreaming Thursday when she woke up to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration’s decision to end the program was against the law.

“I had to do a double take; is this really happening?” she said. “I shed a couple tears because it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

She said the decision is a victory, but immigrants and DACA recipients, also called dreamers, should not stop fighting for their future.

“We still need a permanent solution for our dreamers who are constantly trying to pursue the American Dream,” Casanova said. “It felt amazing to not be in limbo after walking down this path and not knowing where you would end up. Happiness is an understatement, especially during this uncertain time where we have a pandemic still going on, and our Black Lives Matter brothers are voicing their concerns with the justice system. Change is happening, and we should still continue to have these conversations as well as continue to count our blessings.”

Casanova is one of about 24,000 DACA holders who live in North Carolina, and among the 700,000 or so recipients nationwide. She said she is grateful to be in the U.S. and wants to continue to go to school, work and contribute to her community.

Oscar Romero is pictured left at a U.S. Supreme Court rally in the fall.

“Honestly all dreamers want, we’re hugging this country and we just want this country to hug us back,” she said. “Hearing this news was like getting a pat on the back. I definitely have a lot of hope and faith for the future. I know that we still have a long road to go down, but I’m very hopeful we’re going to see change.”

DACA is a temporary fix for recipients of the program, who don’t otherwise have a permanent path to U.S. citizenship. Last June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would safeguard the program and provide a pathway to citizenship. The bill has not been taken up in the U.S. Senate.

Still, the Supreme Court news from Thursday brought many people comfort this week. Oscar Romero, of Charlotte, said he was in complete shock when he read about the ruling.

“This was a turn of events that I don’t think anyone expected,” he said. “I just broke out into tears, just full joy. … While it doesn’t fix everything for us, it’s definitely a breath of relief for all of us who have been holding our breath this whole time.”I just broke out into tears, just full joy. -Oscar Romero Click To Tweet

The 25-year-old was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4. The DACA program changed the entire trajectory of his life, he said. Before the program, he couldn’t legally drive and he had to work jobs where he was paid “under the table.”

“It’s completely opened up so many opportunities for me,” he said, adding that he’s since finished college on a scholarship. “This is a great victory regardless of what lies ahead. Like Black Lives Matter, this is a topic that we shouldn’t just put away.”

Many of the dreamers who talked to NC Policy Watch had similar stories of how DACA helped them get to where they are.

Daniel Bello is no longer a DACA recipient — he has a green card now — but it was the program that helped him be able to go to college. Now he’s in his third year of law school at Campbell University.

He was cautiously optimistic Thursday about the high court’s ruling.

“I’m very happy, but I know that they’ll probably try to challenge it again,” he said.

Daniel Bello

Bello, 30, pointed out that DACA recipients undergo background checks and are required to meet certain standards to be eligible for the program. There are also a lot of misconceptions about immigrants.

“DACA recipients consider the U.S. our home, because we’ve been here our whole lives, and we love this country and just want a chance to participate,” he said. “Based on our record and education, we are likely to become a benefit to the economy in a very positive way.”

Carla Mena, also 30, told her story to Policy Watch on Thursday. She said there was an added pressure on the first generation DACA holders like herself to be successful and to pave the way.

“We are the oldest children of the first-generation immigrant community, and there’s a lot of responsibility in general when it comes to being the eldest in the line of children,” she said.

They live bicultural and bilingual lives and feel at times as if they don’t belong in one world or the other. Only dreamers can really understand what they go through at times, Mena said. And they fought hard before 2012 to be an active part of their communities.

“We were marching; we were doing hunger strikes; we were occupying officials’ offices,” she said. “I think that the biggest takeaway is we are not just hardworking when it comes to our jobs, we are hardworking for what we believe is right. We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better.”We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better. -Carla Mena Click To Tweet

The elder DACA holders are teaching the younger dreamers to also fight and to build resiliency. They are taking care of one other. Mena said in a lot of ways, they had an even harder time with the Trump administration’s rescission, because they grew up with the program available to them and then had to cope when it could just be taken away.

Casanova, one of those younger dreamers, said she is thankful her parents made the choice to bring her to the U.S. so she could have a chance at a better future. She encouraged her peers to vote — because DACA holders can’t — and to be a champion for immigrants.

“They are the real dreamers who had the dream of a better life for us, their children,” she said of her parents. “They didn’t want us to suffer like they did. We owe it to them to keep fighting for the American Dream.

“Like my mom always says to me in Spanish with everything I do, ‘Mija, echale ganas,’ meaning ‘Daughter, do your best.’ We must continue to give it our all because the fight is not over yet. We have to be strategic and organized about the upcoming battles.”

Courts & the Law, News, race

Senate GOP unveils police reform bill that draws Democratic rebukes

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) is joined by fellow Republican lawmakers for a news conference to unveil the GOP’s legislation to address racial disparities in law enforcement at the U.S. Capitol June 17, 2020. Scott, the Senate’s lone Black Republican, lead the effort to write the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans unveiled a police reform bill Wednesday that takes a markedly different approach to police reform efforts backed by congressional Democrats.

The Senate GOP bill would incentivize police departments to ban chokeholds, increase the use of body-worn cameras, improve training in de-escalation tactics and take prior records into greater account when making hiring decisions.

It would also increase data collection on the use of force, weapon discharge and no-knock warrants and make lynching a federal crime, among other things.

“When Black Americans tell us they do not feel safe in their own communities, we need to listen,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, called the GOP bill “inadequate” in a statement. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) said the GOP approach “does not rise to the moment.”

“We have a tale of two chambers, a glaring contrast between a strong, comprehensive Democratic bill in the House, and a much narrower, and much less effective Republican bill in the Senate,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

A ‘false, binary choice’

GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — a Black Republican who led the Senate GOP police reform effort — told reporters Wednesday that the bill aims to “restore confidence communities of color have in institutions of authority.”

Scott said Senate Republicans are listening to public concerns about law enforcement and noted that he has borne the brunt of racial profiling himself, such as when he was given a warning for failing to turn on a turn signal soon enough before changing lanes.

“We hear you,” he said.

But Scott also voiced strong support for law enforcement, saying the “overwhelming” number of officers are “good people” who work hard to keep communities safe and orderly.

Supporting either law enforcement or communities of color is a “false binary choice,” he said.

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) co-sponsored the JUSTICE Act, praising its  ‘commonsense solutions’ for police reform.

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC)

“The vast majority of law enforcement officials in North Carolina and across the country were also sickened by the murder of George Floyd, and they need to be a critical part of the solution,” said Senator Tillis. “I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle commit to working with us to find consensus and advance this bill so we can make progress and help heal our country.”

Sen. McConnell accelerated the timetable for floor consideration and now plans to bring the GOP bill to the floor for a vote next week — roughly a month after the death of George Floyd while being arrested by a white Minneapolis police officer.

The Senate GOP bill differs in key ways from a Democratic police reform package introduced earlier this month. That bill would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and would address qualified immunity — an issue Scott called a “poison pill.”

The Democratic legislation would also bar racial and religious profiling, mandate police training in racial profiling and require state and local law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force data by race and other characteristics. And it would limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement officials.

The Senate GOP bill does not address racial profiling or the transfer of military equipment to police, Schumer said.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee will mark up the Democratic measure Wednesday. It has more than 218 co-sponsors, virtually ensuring passage in the House chamber.

Scott said there is significant overlap between Democratic and Republican approaches to police reform and is working with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Black Democrat, on the issue.

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he would support congressional action on police reform.

Trump signed a modest police reform order Tuesday that strengthens efforts to track police misconduct and uses federal funds to encourage police departments to improve training and certification standards and to work with social workers and other “co-responders” when responding to calls involving homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

Under the order, the U.S. attorney general will require police credentialing agencies to confirm that departments bar chokeholds except when use of deadly force is permitted by law.

It’s unclear how the federal order will affect officers’ behavior as police departments generally fall under the purview of state and local governments, or what effect it may have on police reform legislation in Congress.