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A Dark Day for Democracy in North Carolina

The current right-wing majority on the NC Supreme Court decanted a trio of anti-democratic rulings late last week, stripping away the right to vote from tens of thousands of citizens, and rendering the “free and fair elections” clause of the state’s Constitution devoid of effective meaning. Dissenters on and off the Court predicted that the day would come when future courts reversed those decisions—and that the current majority will then be remembered with scorn as a shamefully low ebb for democracy in North Carolina.

The Court’s sorry rulings came in court-ordered rehearings on cases which had already been decided just last year, with contrary results. The facts of the cases had not changed—only the political makeup of the Court itself had altered. These swift and clearly partisan reversals in the NC Supreme Court’s interpretation of the state’s Constitution act also to further undermine public confidence in the judicial system as an apolitical check on the excesses of the other branches of government. In these cases, the supposedly objective judiciary was plainly acting on demands from the partisan majorities in the state legislature instead.

The key rulings in the reversed cases acted to give a free reign to extreme partisan gerrymandering of legislative and Congressional district lines; approve the use of historically discriminatory voter photo identification requirements; and strip away the right to vote from about 65,000 state citizens who had been convicted of a felony but who had since had their voting rights restored. 

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who leads a national Democratic group whose affiliate helped support the redistricting litigation, said Friday’s mapping decision was “a function of political personnel and partisan opportunism” by Republicans. “History will not be kind to this court’s majority, which will now forever be stained for irreparably harming the legitimacy and reputation of North Carolina’s highest tribunal.” 

NCLCV Executive Director Carrie Clark, reacting on behalf of NCLCV, one of the plaintiffs in the reversed Harper v. Hall case against extreme partisan gerrymandering, cited the dissenting opinion by Associate Justice Anita Earls on the reversal. Clark said, “”We’re deeply disappointed by the ruling and agree wholeheartedly with the dissent by Justice Earls that characterizes the majority opinion as a ‘shameful manipulation of fundamental principles of our democracy and the rule of law.’ We appreciate her optimism in concluding, ‘I look forward to the day when commitment to the constitutional principles of free elections and equal protection of the laws are upheld and the abuses committed by the majority are recognized for what they are, permanently relegating them to the annals of this Court’s darkest moments.’” 

The New York Times carried an article on the Harper reversal’s national implications. It too cited what it called Justice Earls’ “furious dissent” which accused the Court’s majority of making specious legal arguments and using misleading statistics to make a false case that partisan gerrymandering was beyond its jurisdiction. Earls said, “The majority ignores the uncontested truths about the intentions behind partisan gerrymandering and erects an unconvincing facade that only parrots democratic values in an attempt to defend its decision. These efforts to downplay the practice do not erase its consequences and the public will not be gaslighted.” Additional details on the facts and issues involved in each of the three reversed cases can be found in an analysis from NC Newsline here.

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