Appeals Court Denies GOP Bid to Defend North Carolina Voter ID Law

A divided en banc Fourth Circuit ruled Republican state lawmakers cannot intervene to defend the North Carolina General Assembly in a challenge to the state’s controversial voter ID law. 

(Courthouse News photo/Erika Williams)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Republican members of the North Carolina General Assembly are not allowed to intervene on behalf of the state in a lawsuit over its embattled voter ID requirements, the full Fourth Circuit ruled Monday. 

In a 45-page majority opinion written by U.S. Circuit Judge Pamela A. Harris on Monday, the en banc appeals court upheld a federal judge’s refusal to let individual GOP lawmakers defend the controversial election law requiring photo ID at the polls.

Harris wrote that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it found that the legislators’ proposed intervention in the case was “likely to cause undue delay and prejudice to the plaintiffs.”

In 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 824, which requires voters who cast their ballots either in person or by absentee ballot to provide one of 10 forms of authorized photo identification. The law leaves it to county election boards to provide a qualifying identification to voters who do not have one. It also expands the number of partisan observers at polling stations.

After the Republican-led House and Senate overrode a veto by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, the law was enacted on Dec. 19, 2018.

The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and several of the state’s local NAACP branches filed suit challenging the law the day after it was enacted, claiming it has a disparate impact on African American and Latino residents of the state. 

The civil rights groups initially won an injunction against the law in district court, but the Fourth Circuit lifted the injunction last December while allowing the NAACP’s challenge over the merits of the law to continue.

Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers moved to intervene in the case after the district court’s ruling. The lower court and a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit ruled against them, but the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court agreed to rehear the case en banc.

Monday’s 9-6 ruling denying the motion to intervene does not address the merits of the voter ID law.

“What makes this case unusual is that North Carolina’s attorney general, appearing for the State Board of Elections, already is representing the state’s interest in the validity of that law, actively defending its constitutionality in both state and federal court,” wrote Harris, a Barack Obama appointee. 

The speaker of the state House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate had claimed in their motion to intervene that their interest was not being adequately represented by the administration of the Democratic governor, who had publicly condemned the law.

Further, the GOP leaders accused Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein of half-heartedly defending the law in the federal case, as well as in a similar case in state court.

Harris noted that the legislative leaders have moved twice before the district court to intervene so that they also can speak for the state, “insisting that this case requires not one but two representatives of the State’s interest.”

 The district court had rejected both of those requests, and Harris on Monday concluded the Fourth Circuit sees “no abuse of discretion in that decision.”

Harris was joined in the majority by eight of the 15 judges who heard the case.

Several judges dissented, including Donald Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judges A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr., Allison Rushing and Julius Richardson. They were joined in the minority by U.S. Circuit Judges G. Steven Agee, J. Harvie Wilkinson and Paul Niemeyer, appointed by George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, respectively.

“North Carolina recognized a potential problem. It anticipated that there could be times when its executive branch would not vigorously enforce the state’s duly-enacted legislation. To address that concern, North Carolina passed a law that requests the North Carolina General Assembly be permitted, alongside the executive branch, to defend any federal action challenging a North Carolina statute,” Quattlebaum wrote in his dissenting opinion. 

He pointed to a state statute first passed in 2013 that requests a federal court presiding over an action where North Carolina is a named party allow both the legislative branch and the executive branch of the state to participate.

“For good reason, district courts are afforded discretion in resolving motions to intervene. Appellate courts should generally avoid micromanaging district courts in such matters. But this is not your run of the mill intervention case,” Quattlebaum wrote. “Here, the district court excluded from its analysis the express policy of North Carolina as reflected in its democratically-enacted statutes. Although federal courts need not completely defer to that public policy decision, the district court cannot fail to give the state’s choice any weight.”

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