Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Wake County judge: Voter ID challenge can move forward in courts

A state constitutional challenge to North Carolina’s new voter ID law can move forward, according to a Wednesday order from Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier Jr.

Six plaintiffs filed the lawsuit alleging the voter ID law discriminates against and disproportionately impacts minority voters, creates separate classes of voters, imposes a cost and property requirement for voting and impedes the ability of voters to engage in political expression and speech. Legislative defendants responded with a motion to dismiss the suit, which Rozier denied after hearing arguments earlier this month.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley will now appoint a three-judge panel to hear the case as a whole.

“We appreciate that the court recognized that the voters who brought their case deserve to have a full hearing in front of a three-judge panel,” said Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “We look forward to representing plaintiffs as they continue to challenge this discriminatory and unconstitutional law.”

One part of a claim brought by plaintiffs was dismissed by the judge because none of the plaintiffs in the case who were under the age of sixty-five possessed an acceptable state-issued ID that was more than one year expired. Rozier wrote in the order that because the plaintiffs did not fall within the category of voters potentially affected by the claim, there was a lack of standing.

Lawmakers fast-tracked a bill this week, that was signed Thursday by Gov. Roy Cooper, that delays the implementation of the voter ID bill until the 2020 elections.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is representing plaintiffs in the voter ID litigation, along with pro-bono counsel from the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice also represented plaintiffs who successfully challenged the state’s 2013 monster voter suppression law that was ultimately struck down by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Read Rozier’s order below.



18 CVS 15292 VMR Order on Facial v as Applied (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates: The time is now for SCOTUS to set partisan gerrymandering standard

In less than two weeks, attorneys will be back in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to argue a North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case — but this time, they hope, things will be different.

“The North Carolina case is the best test case to right the wrongs in North Carolina and frankly to set a standard throughout the country,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause. “Paired with the Maryland case, which is an example of Democratic gerrymandering, we believe that this is the moment for SCOTUS to clearly articulate a partisan gerrymandering that is unconstitutional.”

Oral arguments in sibling cases Common Cause v. Rucho and League of Women Voters v. Rucho will be heard March 26. A federal court has already found twice in the partisan gerrymandering cases that the state’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional.

Feng gave an overview of the cases Wednesday in a teleconference. She said the undisputed facts of the case make it different from others heard by the high court in the past — mainly that GOP legislative leaders said on the record they drew districts to maximize partisan gain.

Daniel Tokaji, an election law and First Amendment professor from Moritz College of Law, agreed and said the strongest legal basis of the Common Cause case was the violation of First Amendment associational rights. The state Democratic Party is a party in the case.

Tokaji said there is 50 years of Supreme Court precedent protecting associational rights and that in some cases, voting is an associational right.

“It’s not only the affect on who gets elected to office that courts should consider … but also effects on the disfavored political party and its supporters outside the electoral process,” he said.

That includes difficulties fundraising, registering voters, generating support, recruiting candidates and accomplishing policy objectives. North Carolina has undisputed evidence of all of it.

Tokaji said the North Carolina best captures the type of injury inflicted by gerrymandering, a systemic injury to a group of people. It also provides the court an opportunity to set a nuanced standard — just because there is intent for partisan gerrymandering doesn’t mean a map is unconstitutional; the court can allow states to present reasons for gerrymandering, like keeping districts compact or geographical considerations.

“To me the biggest reason for being hopeful here — we don’t know for sure what the court is going to do — is that the evidence about how bad the problem has gotten and how toxic it is for our politics as a whole becomes clearer and clearer over time and this isn’t a problem that’s going to fix itself,” he said.

Love Caesar, 20, a student at North Carolina A&T University and a democracy fellow with Common Cause NC, described the effects of partisan gerrymandering on her campus and said it’s very disheartening for students.

“There’s no other college in this country divided into two congressional districts, especially right down the middle,” she said. “It’s so blatantly clear how it’s done. The United States has a history of taking the Black vote and suppressing it, so it’s clear how this gerrymandering dilutes the people’s power at A&T.”

She added that she thinks it’s important for the Supreme Court to set a precedent now because “it’s setting an example to us who are future leaders of this country … about how they want us to act in the future.”

“Will they act with integrity and strike down unconstitutional gerrymandering?” she asked. “I would really, really love to vote on a constitutional map.”

The high court will also hear a Maryland case involving Democratic partisan gerrymandering.

Courts & the Law, Governor Roy Cooper, News

Gov. Cooper names appeals court judge, Mark Davis, to N.C. Supreme Court

Newly appointed state Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis

North Carolina will soon have a full state Supreme Court, after Gov. Roy Cooper announced his appointment Monday of state Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis to the high court.

Davis will fill the seat once occupied by new Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Cooper named Beasley to the chief justice role last month when the former chief justice, Mark Martin, retired at the end of February to take a job as the dean of Regent University’s law school.

Davis will take over Beasley’s former associate justice position, arriving in time to hear oral arguments when the state Supreme Court convenes in April. He also intends to run for election to a full eight-year term in 2020.

“I know Judge Davis is dedicated to his work and to serving the people of North Carolina, and I know he will continue to serve with distinction as an associate justice on the Supreme Court,” Cooper said.

This is the second time Davis, a registered Democrat, has succeeded Beasley. He was appointed to her Court of Appeals seat by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012, and won election to a full eight-year term in 2014. Davis was previously Perdue’s general counsel and, before that, served as a special deputy attorney general at the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Davis, who was born in Onslow County, also worked for more than a decade in the litigation section of the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice firm, now Womble Bonds Dickinson.

Davis’ appointment shifts the balance of the Supreme Court to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Martin, the former chief justice, was a Republican, and GOP leaders had been hopeful Cooper would appoint a Republican to the high court to keep some balance. Cooper has said before that he would appoint the best person for the job.

Both Beasley’s and Davis’ seats will be up for election in 2020. Davis’ appointment also leaves a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. Cooper will have the power to fill it.

Several people have already announced their intentions to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court, including the only Republican on the court, Justice Paul Newby, who will challenge Beasley for the leadership position.

Other likely candidates in 2020 include Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals – he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – and former state Senate member Tamara Barringer, a Wake County attorney.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(Note: Managing Editor Billy Ball contributed to this report.)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cooper signs bill restoring state Court of Appeals bench to 15 judges

The State Court of Appeals bench has officially been restored to 15 judges since Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill today reversing a GOP measure that shrunk it to 12 judges.

Senate Bill 75 became law today, almost two years after former Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican who represented Stanly and Montgomery counties, sponsored the original measure shrinking the court, House Bill 239.

“A strong and unbowed, independent judiciary that works as part of our system of checks and balances is critical to our democracy and freedom,” Cooper wrote in a statement after signing the new bill.

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) filed SB 75 last week. They never responded to requests for comment about what spurred the change of heart to restore the number of judges on the court, though it was likely because litigation over the initial bill shrinking the bench was set to go before the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Cooper challenged the upholding of the law last spring, but it’s likely he will withdraw litigation now that SB 75 was passed. The state Supreme Court starting tomorrow will be made up of five Democratic justices and one Republican, since today is Republican Chief Justice Mark Martin’s last day on the bench. He is resigning to go work as the dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.

Cooper appointed Justice Cheri Beasley to take his spot, but has yet to announce who will fill the vacancy she leaves behind on the high court. If he chooses another Democrat, the bench will become a 6-1 Democratic majority.

The partisan makeup of the state Court of Appeals is a little more evenly divided. Republican judge Robert Hunter Jr. will reach mandatory retirement at the end of this month. His departure would bring the court down to 14 judges — eight Republicans and six Democrats.

Since SB 75 is in place, Cooper can appoint a judge to fill Hunter’s vacancy, bringing it back up to the 15 judges, and potentially adding another Democrat to the bench. It should be noted that much of the work of the courts is not partisan — the partisan makeup of state courts has been brought to the center stage in recent years because GOP lawmakers have tried to change the courts for partisan gain.

Court of Appeals judges work in panels of three and can also hear cases en banc, or altogether, in some instances. One thing SB 75 did not restore was HB 239’s transfer of some work from the Court of Appeals to the State Supreme Court — class action certification appeals, business appeals and 3.1 case appeals (which involve children and issues of abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights).

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Political operative at center of absentee fraud in Bladen arrested in criminal investigation

McCrae Dowless, center, pictured with his attorney Cynthia Singletary, was arrested Wednesday on felony charges related to an illegal absentee ballot scheme in the 9th congressional district. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

The political operative at the center of an illegal absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties has been arrested on related felony charges.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr.’s arrest comes less than a week after the State Board of Elections ordered a new election in the 9th congressional district. Republican candidate Mark Harris paid Dowless to run his absentee ballot program in Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland counties, and it was later discovered he had been directing others to collect those forms, fill them out and mail them in batches to the local boards of elections.

Dowless has been indicted in Wake County on three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot. Four others were also indicted: Caitlyn Croom, Matthew Mathis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson — they all face charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and possession of an absentee ballot, and Mathis was additionally indicted on two counts of falsely certifying an absentee ballot.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) reported arresting Dowless on Wednesday in Bladenboro without incident. He was taken to the Wake County Detention Center.

A woman who answered the phone Wednesday at the law offices of Cynthia Singletary confirmed she was still representing Dowless, but said she was unavailable and would not be making any comments about his arrest at the moment.

Singletary advised Dowless not to testify last week at an evidentiary hearing without immunity from criminal prosecution granted by the State Board. The board declined to offer immunity and continued on with the hearing, which was held to determine whether there would be a new election in the 9th congressional district.

Individuals who worked for Dowless testified at the hearing that he recruited them to commit election fraud and described his operation. His stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, said Dowless paid between $150 and $175 cash per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week.

She also testified about the lengths Dowless went to to avoid raising red flags to the Board of Elections, including using the same color ink for witnesses’ signatures as voters’ and mailing ballots from voters’ nearby post boxes. And in what Board Chairman Bob Cordle described as the most shocking testimony, Britt said at the hearing that Dowless typed up a statement for her to communicate to the State Board instead of testifying.

“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”

Harris, who paid Dowless through Red Dome Group more than $130,000 for his efforts, testified that he had no idea that he was breaking the law. His son, John Harris, testified though that he warned his parents several times about Dowless’ suspicious tactics before the campaign hired him.

On the fourth day of testimony last week, the elder Harris, facing cross examination from his opponent’s attorney, conceded that he thought there should be a new election after all. He appeared to win the race by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready.

Harris’ attorney initially reported that he would run again in the new election, but Harris has since said he will not due to health issues. McCready does plan to run again.

The criminal investigation into 9th congressional district fraud is ongoing, according to the SBI.

The State Board commended Freeman in a statement Wednesday and said it plans to continue to support efforts to prosecute coordinated election fraud in North Carolina, including activities during the 2016 and 2018 elections.

“These indictments should serve as a stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina,” said Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach. “Today is a new and better day for elections in our state.”

The State Board will send staff members to Bladen and Robeson counties ahead of the new election in the 9th congressional district to monitor and assist with the elections process. They will meet Monday to set a calendar for a new election.