The state Supreme Court in a 4-3 vote agreed with a central argument the North Carolina NAACP made in its challenge to controversial constitutional amendments, keeping alive the case against voter ID and an income tax cap. (Click here to read the majority and dissenting opinions.)
The Supreme Court’s Democratic majority wrote that proposed constitutional amendments aren’t automatically considered valid if they are proposed and put on the ballot by legislators elected from unlawful districts. The court’s three Republicans dissented.
The case will go back to the trial court for another hearing because the Democratic majority said there are still questions that need to be answered to determine whether the constitutional amendments stick.
“We now have a North Carolina Supreme Court decision declaring that our legislature does not have unlimited authority to amend the constitution,” Kym Meyer, a lawyer representing the NAACP, said in an interview. “It’s a huge win on that point.”
The case dates to 2018, when the legislature voted to put six proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, including an amendment that required photo ID for in-person voting and an amendment reducing the state’s 10% cap on personal and corporate income taxes to 7%.
The NAACP won in trial court but lost 2-1 in the state Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in February.
Putting a proposed constitutional amendment to voters requires three-fifths majorities of both the House and Senate, and the Republican-led legislature pushed through the proposed amendments the summer before they lost their super-majorities in the 2018 elections. Some legislators who voted on bills to get the proposed amendments in front of voters were elected from districts federal courts determined were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
The NAACP’s lawyers argued that legislators elected from unconstitutional districts cannot propose valid constitutional amendments.
Lawyers representing Republican legislators argued that elected officials are presumed to be acting properly, and that voter-approved changes to the constitution should be left alone.
Justice Anita Earls wrote the majority opinion that says, in short, that process matters. “Respecting the people’s will means respecting the process they saw fit to include in their fundamental law,” the opinion says.
The order told the trial court to consider whether the proposed amendments immunize legislators from democratic accountability; perpetuate the ongoing exclusion of a category of voters from the political process, or intentionally discriminate against a particular category of citizens who were also discriminated against in the political process leading to the legislators’ election.
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” the amendment should be invalidated, the opinion says. If the answer to all the questions is “no,” or if there were not enough legislators elected in unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts to make a difference in getting proposed changes to voters, the amendments must stand.
Meyer, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the ruling was a huge win for the NAACP. “At the beginning of this case, we were told that the case was unwinnable,” she said. “The NAACP is always the group that has to stand up in these situations.”
Justice Phil Berger Jr. writing in dissent said that the majority considered questions that the legislature should decide.
The NAACP wanted Berger, who is Senate leader Phil Berger’s son, and Justice Tamara Barringer, who voted to approve the constitutional amendments when she was a member of the state Senate, to recuse themselves or be disqualified from hearing the case. In the end, all seven justices participated.