Declaring that the North Carolina legislature had passed “the most restrictive voting law…since the era of Jim Crow,” aimed specifically at black voters because of their race, a federal appeals court on Friday ordered the state to stop enforcing the five major parts of the measure.
The 83-page ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit came in one of the most closely watched legal battles since the Supreme Court three years ago made it easier for states — especially in the Deep South — to adopt new limits on voting rights.
While the sweeping new appeals court opinion harshly condemned the Republican majority of the North Carolina legislature for the racial motive the court had found and for swiftly passing the law after the Supreme Court had eased federal supervision of that state’s voting laws, the panel explicitly refused to put the state back under a regime in which it would have to get advance clearance in Washington for changing any of its election laws. The panel said it was enough simply to forbid enforcement of the five specific provisions. It also declined to order observers to monitor future elections in the state.
Nullifiee by the ruling were these provisions of the 2013 law: a restrictive photo ID law for voters, eliminating the few kinds of IDs that black voters might have; two provisions that reduced or took away voting options used heavily by blscks — early voting before election day, including Sundays, and a right to register to vote on the same day of voting; a ban on counting votes that had been cast mistakenly in the wrong precinct, affecting black voters the most, and a ban on pre-registering to vote before reaching voting age, 18.
“In many ways,” the appeal court remarked, those challenged provisions “constitute soltions in search of a problem.” The panel credited none of the state’s attempts to justify the provisions, and found explicitly that, before writing those limits into the final bill, legislature leaders had ordered research done to identify the voting practices that would assist black voters the most.
All of the provisions had been upheld by a federal trial judge in Winston-Salem, who found that the GOP-led legislature was only trying to protect its party’s political advantage because of how black voters tended to vote in huge majorities for Democratic candidates. But the appeals court said the actual motive was to curb blacks’ voting rights just at a time when they were beginning to have a significant influence in North Carolina politics.
One key reason that the panel found those measures to be driven by race, rather than Republican attempts to enhance their party’s election advantage, was that the state legislature had been working on a very modest photo ID law but then broadened it greatly in an effort that began within hours after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In essence, that ruling brought an end to federal pre-approval requirement for voting laws in states with a history of racial bias in elections — one of the major features of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Obama administration, along with civil rights and voting rights groups, had joined in challenging the North Carolina law, seeking to turn it into a major test case of how to challenge a wave of new voting rights restrictions that states began passing or enforcing right after the Shelby County ruling. (The state of Texas, for example, moved swiftly after that ruling to begin enforcing what is considered the nation’s most restrictive voter photo ID law — one that a federal appeals court blocked earlier this month.)
The North Carolina case seems likely to return to the Supreme Court, which had refused two years ago — over two Justices’ dissents — to block any of the challenged provisions in an earlier phase of the case. (The Justices have already agreed to rule at their next Term on another North Carolina case involving race and voting — a test on whether race was the main factor in drawing up the boundaries of two new congressional election districts.)
In Friday’s ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court, it gave the trial judge, District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, credit for managing the big case well, but it then went on to flatly reject all of the key legal conclusions that he had drawn from the massive factual record assembled in the case. He found no racial motive for any of the provisions.
The three-judge panel was unanimous in striking down the five specific provisions that had been challenged, but it divided somewhat on the remedy.
Two members of the panel, Circuit Judges James A. Wynn Jr. and Henry F. Floyd, ruled that all five of the challenged provisions should be struck down now, and they ruled that the court would not sent the case back to Judge Schroeder to examine the effect of a change the legislature had made in the law to provide a limited exception to the photo ID provision. There was no evidence that the change would remedy the legal wrong done by the ID law, they concluded.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, who wrote the court’s main opinion, dissented only on the other judges’ refusal to let Judge Shcroeder look again at the change in the photo ID law, and whether it had helped black voters in casting ballots in two elections held this year with the changed ID requirement in effect.
The state has the option of asking the full Fourth Circuit Court to reconsider the case en banc, or to attempt, now or laer, to take the case to the Supreme Court. (UPDATE: The state’s governor said that officials will “immediately appeal” and will consider other options. He provided no specifics.)