Federal judge rules voter ID correspondence, emails are public records

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 27, 2014 

— The North Carolina legislative leaders who led the crafting of the state’s new voter ID law will have to turn over some of their correspondence and email messages to voters and organizations challenging the wide-ranging amendments, according to a federal court ruling.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake issued a ruling on Thursday that addresses an attempt by lawmakers to quash subpoenas seeking email, correspondence and other documents exchanged while transforming the state’s voting process.

In a court hearing earlier this year, attorneys for 13 Republican legislators tried to turn back efforts to get the correspondence released. The NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Justice Department and others sued the governor, state legislators and N.C. election board members to obtain the records.

Among the 13 lawmakers were: Sen. Phil Berger, leader of the state Senate; House Speaker Thom Tillis; Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews; and Republican Reps. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte, Larry Pittman of Concord and David Lewis of Dunn.

Their attorneys contended that the lawmakers were protected by legislative immunity and should be free from “arrest or civil process” related to their actions as General Assembly members.

Peake said in her ruling that many of the documents requested “involve communications with outside parties or are other documents that are considered public records under state law.”

But Peake left open the possibility for lawmakers to try to shield some of the information by arguing the correspondence is privileged attorney-client information that they say should be protected.

Peake asked both sides to produce a status report by April 7 that shows how they plan to categorize the communications.

“North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Legislators should not be shrouding their intentions in secrecy.”

The 49-page document that changed voting laws in North Carolina by requiring voters present a valid ID before casting a ballot is called H.B. 589 in court filings. The changes were adopted by the legislature in July and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory in August.

Republican said the new law was needed to prevent voter fraud, though few such cases have been found.

Critics described the changes as attempts to suppress votes, particularly those of African-Americans and Hispanic voters who often support Democrats over Republicans.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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