In a 4-3 party line ruling, the state Supreme Court found that a 2018 amendment to the state constitution may be invalid because the majorities in the state legislature came from districts that had been unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered. The ruling did not outright overturn the amendment, which was ratified by voters in the same year, but remanded the case back to a lower court for further study.
“In the final week of the final regular legislative session preceding the 2018 general election, a General Assembly that was composed of a substantial number of legislators elected from districts that the United States Supreme Court had conclusively determined to have resulted from unconstitutional racial gerrymandering enacted legislation presenting six constitutional amendments to North Carolina voters,” Justice Anita Earls wrote for the Court’s Democratic majority.
The two amendments at issue in the case were the voter ID amendment, as well as another amendment preventing the state income tax from ever being raised above 7%. The amendments were passed by a three-fifths majority of both chambers of the legislature; but the voter ID amendment only passed by two votes in the state House of Representatives and three in the Senate; the tax cap amendment passed by just one vote in the House and four votes in the Senate. In the general election in 2018, both amendments were ratified a majority of voters.
At the same time, a federal court ruling found that nearly 30 legislative districts were illegal racial gerrymanders; 100 of the state’s 170 legislative seats had to be redrawn, the Associated Press reported. Judges allowed the state legislators elected in 2016 to serve their two-year terms. But in 2018, using redrawn legislative maps, voters in the state broke Republican supermajorities in both houses, the Raleigh News & Observer added.
The 2018 election formed the basis for the lawsuit, brought by the NAACP, which contended that even though voters had approved the amendments, they were invalid because they had been introduced by an unconstitutional legislature.
“We conclude that … the North Carolina Constitution impose[s] limits on these legislators’ authority to initiate the process of amending the constitution under these circumstances,” Earls wrote, adding, however, that the trial court’s ruling invalidating the amendments was too broad.
“In particular, the trial court should have examined … whether the legislature was composed of a sufficient number of legislators elected from unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts—or from districts that were made possible by the unconstitutional gerrymander—such that the votes of those legislators could have been decisive in passing the challenged enactments … In this case, however, the record is clear that votes of legislators from unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts could have been decisive.” The Court remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether the amendment would have kept the legislators who passed it in power, whether it would have continued to exclude certain voters, or whether it would constitute the same kind of discrimination as the gerrymander itself.
Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Tim Moore (R), called the decision a “judicial coup” and vowed to keep fighting for the amendments in court.
“This party-line ruling is in direct contradiction to the rule of law and the will of the voters,” Moore said in a statement. “I will continue to fight for the Voter ID and Tax Cap Amendments, which were overwhelmingly approved by the people of North Carolina. It’s time to end the judicial coup that is unilaterally altering our constitution and subverting the will of North Carolina voters.”