As landmark rulings go, it is quite slender, only 13 pages. But when it landed on Feb. 22 , it shook the foundations of the North Carolina General Assembly.
The ruling by Wake Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins came on a lawsuit brought by the NAACP contesting the new constitutional requirement for a voter photo ID and a lower cap on the state income tax. The judge noted that federal courts have already found that the Republican House and Senate super-majorities were elected in 2016 based on illegal racially gerrymandered district maps. Therefore, he concluded, the Republican lawmakers did not properly attain the three-fifths majority needed in the House and Senate to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. He then voided the two challenged amendments.
The ruling seeks to to clarify a fuzzy area of the law: How legitimate is a legislature elected by illegitimate means?
It also brought howls from Republican legislative leaders. Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who chairs the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, said, “I am legitimately concerned about the future of our state and country with opinions like this abomination. One man with a political axe to grind invalidated millions of votes and potentially dozens of laws, including the state budget. Two million voters decided to add voter ID to their state constitution, but one Democrat on a power high is invalidating their will.”
The truth actually is the opposite. Collins’ ruling does not frustrate the will of the people. It asserts it.
Collins, generally regarded as a level-headed and moderate jurist, is not the radical here. The radicals are Senate Leader Phil Berger and his cohorts who hijacked the state’s political system and have effectively ignored the people’s will since they took control of the General Assembly in 2011.
The excesses of a radical majority are not hard to recall. They started in 2011 with perhaps the most extremely gerrymandered election maps in the nation. Those produced lopsided legislative majorities and an absurd situation in which Republicans — now ranked third in number in North Carolina behind Democrats and unaffiliated voters — hold 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats.
But after the election of 2016, Republicans faced a Democratic governor and the prospect of a 2018 election that would be based on fair maps redrawn by court order. So they went whole hog. They tried to strip the governor of his powers and slammed through a state budget without allowing for amendments. And, in a final charge, they put six constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Among them was the voter ID requirement and a lower limit on the state income tax.
All Collins did was read the federal rulings and look at the deliberately difficult steps required to amend the Constitution and conclude that the Republican lawmakers had overreached. His ruling will be appealed, likely directly to the state Supreme Court. He will welcome that. He wasn’t seeking to be the final word, but to compel the courts to clarify the law regarding illegal gerrymandering. He did not, as Republicans claim, strip the legislature of its authority to pass regular laws. He said only that Republican lawmakers did not have the clear popular assent required for all steps of amending the Constitution.
J. Michael Crowell, one of North Carolina’s leading election law attorneys, said, “It could be an enormously significant decision if it stands. This is a fascinating case. It’s not clear what the appellate courts will do.”
True, but it’s clear what Republican lawmakers did. They contorted the democratic process until it no longer reflected the will of the people. Collins didn’t need a lot of pages to say that. Just room enough for the truth.
Barnett: email@example.com or 919-829-4512