North Carolina Supreme Court taking over appeal on voting by offenders

Published 10:44 am Sunday, May 8, 2022

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

The North Carolina Supreme Court said on Friday it would take over a lawsuit seeking to change when felony offenders can vote again, rather than wait for intermediate-level appeals judges to decide whether it was right for a trial court to loosen restrictions.

The justices agreed to a motion filed by the suing ex-offenders and civil rights groups last month asking the state’s highest court to review the case before the Court of Appeals ruled on the crux of the lawsuit’s issue.

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That likely means a sooner final outcome — potentially before the November midterms — over the future of a 1973 law that prevents someone convicted of a felony from having voting rights restored while they are still on probation, parole or post-release supervision. The plaintiffs’ lawyers told the justices it was appropriate because the case involved significant legal matters that could affect 56,000 people currently without voting rights.

Friday’s order marks the latest in a series of recent decisions by the Supreme Court to take over litigation on politically charged topics.

In late March, Superior Court judges who held a trial on the lawsuit last summer struck down the law, declaring it violates the state constitution largely because it discriminates against black residents.

The judges ordered that people who are not in prison or jail for a felony conviction may lawfully register and vote. But registration applications weren’t immediately approved by the State Board of Elections because of an anticipated appeal and confusion with another order approved by the Supreme Court last September.

The Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay, and two weeks ago a panel of Court of Appeals judges blocked the trial court’s order — preventing these registration requests from being fulfilled for the upcoming May 17 primary. That delay also would extend through late July if runoffs were necessary.

Republican legislative leaders, who contend the 1973 law was approved without discriminatory intent by treating all similarly situated offenders the same, wanted the delay to be extended until the appeal was disposed — likely blocking any registrations for the November elections.

The GOP lawmakers’ attorneys recently asked for the full 15-member Court of Appeals to rehear the delay request. A majority of the appeals court’s judges are registered Republicans.

Friday’s Supreme Court decision, which didn’t identify whether some justices opposed accepting the case now, would appear to leave intact for now a delay of the voting order through the primary only.

Four of the seven justices are registered Democrats. The order told parties to file briefs by the proper deadlines.

The state constitution forbids a person convicted of a felony from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.” The 1973 law laying out those restoration rules requires the “unconditional discharge of an inmate, of a probationer, or of a parolee.”

The trial judges agreed with evidence presented at trial that linked the law to Reconstruction-era efforts to prevent black people from voting.

Lawyers for Republican legislators wrote last week that the trial court “misread legislative history” about the 1973 law, which they say relaxed the requirement for restoring voting rights and was championed by the NAACP and the General Assembly’s only three black members at the time.

Since March, the state’s highest court has agreed that a lawsuit challenging the state’s 2018 voter photo identification mandate and the latest chapter in longstanding “Leandro” education funding case should bypass the Court of Appeals.