RALEIGH, N.C. -- In massive victories for Republicans, North Carolina's state Supreme Court on Friday threw out previous rulings that had declared illegal both redistricting maps for excessive partisanship and a Voter ID law for being infected with racial bias.
The new edition of the court, which became a Republican majority this year following the election of two GOP justices, ruled after taking the unusual step of revisiting opinions made in December by the court's previous iteration when Democrats held a 4-3 seat advantage. The court held hearings in March.
The 5-2 decision likely means that a photo ID mandate approved by the GOP-controlled legislature in late 2018 will be enforced for the 2024 elections. Legislators also should have greater latitude in drawing legislative seat boundaries for the next decade that will reinforce their General Assembly majorities and assist them in winning more seats within the state's congressional delegation.
Some voting right advocates did not applaud the ruling.
"I think it's a horrible decision for the people of North Carolina. Essentially legalizing partisan gerrymandering, which is just so detrimental to democracy, said Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause NC, a nonprofit organization that aims to protect voters' rights in the state.
Phillips called the three decisions "three strikes" against democracy.
He said the reversal of the Voter ID court decision decreases access to voting.
"Voting should not be a partisan issue and things that are barriers to voting are wrong. And we worry about a narrowly drawn voter I.D.," Phillips expressed. " And the idea that people who served their time in prison and have paid their debt to society should be held back as we are trying to and incorporate them back into society is also a real harm. "
The court on Friday also overturned a trial court decision on when the voting rights of convicted felons can be restored. That means potentially tens of thousands of people convicted of felonies will have to keep waiting to complete probation, parole or pay their fines to qualify to vote again.
Michael Whatley, the NCGOP Chairman, applauded the moves from the NC Supreme Court.
"This is a great day for North Carolina. It is a great day for the rule of law. The North Carolina Supreme Court has reinstated the proper balance in the courts and the legislature," he said. "I think this is great for our elections and it's going to be great for our state."
He said the rulings put North Carolina back in a place where the state wanted and needed to be.
"I don't think that that is a threat to democracy in any way. I think that we want to make sure that it is easy to vote and hard to cheat in North Carolina," Whately said.
North Carolina Supreme Court also ruled that GOP-drawn voting maps should not have been declared illegal.
Previous redistricting rulings in early 2022 had led to a congressional map that resulted in Democrats winning seven of the state's 14 states. The most recent decision reverses its initial decision in 2022 when the court ruled the original maps constituted extreme partisan gerrymandering, violating the state's constitution in several different ways.
GOP lawmakers pushed back, arguing the court did not have standing to mandate new maps.
They pointed to the elections clause in the US Constitution, which says state legislatures have the authority to decide the time, place, and manner of elections. It's a theory known as the independent state legislature theory and while the US Supreme Court rejected an emergency action to intervene they did agree to take up a related case, Moore v. Harper, led by NC House Speaker Tim Moore.
Those arguments were presented to the court in December, but in February, the NC Supreme Court, now with a Republican majority, agreed to re-hear the initial case.
What is gerrymandering?
With such large implications to voting in the state both Democrats and Republicans responded to the rulings.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a tweet that the court ignored the constitution and is following the GOP-led legislature.
North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement voicing support for the ruling.
"The decisions handed down today by the NC Supreme Court have ensured that our constitution and the will of the people of North Carolina are honored. Nearly five years after the voters of this state overwhelmingly voted in favor of photo ID at the polls, it has finally become the law of the land. We will fulfill our constitutional duty to redraw state house, senate and congressional maps."
"The state Supreme Court is saying that this is a political issue. It's not something that a court can deal with. We're not going to try to deal with it anymore. ," said Mitch Kokai, the communications director at the John Locke Foundation.
"So for most people, that's not going to affect them. It will affect the felons who had completed their active prison time but hadn't yet completed the rest of their term. And I think in terms of election integrity, there are a lot of people who think well know, a felon should complete their full prison sentence before they vote, and then they will probably be comforted by this ruling," Kokai said.
"I think the biggest outcome that comes out of this, the biggest takeaway is that our state Supreme Court has said it really wants to go back and be what a court has traditionally been. And that is a body that considers cases. And if there is a law that comes in front of them, they're going to look at that law and say, we don't really care whether we like this law or not," Kokai said.
"While you're going to hear from the political left, that this is the court playing politics, basically, folks on the on the political right and constitutional conservatives are saying this is the court deciding to take the politics out that had been injected over the past few years," Kokai said