Judge rules NC lawmakers must share voter ID correspondence

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 15, 2014 

— A U.S. District Court judge issued a ruling on Thursday that instructs North Carolina lawmakers involved with crafting the state’s new voter ID law to turn over some of their correspondence and email messages to the plaintiffs challenging the wide-ranging amendments.

Thomas D. Schroeder, the U.S. District Court judge, issued a memorandum order on Thursday that bats back the lawmakers’ claims that U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake was outside the bounds of law when she issued a ruling earlier this year.

In March, Peake addressed attempts 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.

Among the 13 lawmakers were Sen. Phil Berger, leader of the state Senate, and House Speaker Thom Tillis.

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.

In his ruling on Thursday, Schroeder acknowledged that legislators, in general, do enjoy some immunity, but said that the courts have not addressed the scope of privilege when applied to documents in a civil case.

Because of that, Schroeder said, he could not say the magistrate judge’s order was “contrary to law,” as the lawmakers stated in their appeal of the March ruling.

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.

Peake said in her March 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.

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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