Appeals Court: GOP Lawmakers Can't Join NC Voter ID Lawsuit
A judge didn't step over the line when she refused to let North Carolina's legislative leaders formally defend the state's latest photo identification voting law with other state government attorneys, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
A majority of the 15 judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld 2019 decisions by District Judge Loretta Biggs preventing House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger from becoming defendants in a race-bias lawsuit filed by the state NAACP and several local chapters. Barring a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers for legislative leaders who helped pass the 2018 law won't be able to argue for it at a trial set to begin next January.
Nine of the judges agreed that Biggs didn't abuse her discretion with her decision. Biggs found no evidence that lawyers from Attorney General Josh Stein's office — representing State Board of Elections members, the named defendants in the lawsuit — were inadequately defending the law on their own.
Writing the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Pamela Harris said that the lower court properly followed federal rules in determining whether Berger and Moore should be allowed to intervene.
The legislators' "purported interest in defending (the law) on behalf of the state of North Carolina was adequately represented already by the State Board of Elections and attorney general," Harris wrote.
Republicans have said they should be allowed to defend a law they approved. They've also pointed to Stein's previous opposition to a voter ID law and his office's defense of the current law in a similar state court lawsuit in April as proof GOP legislative leaders need to get involved. There's been no verdict in the state lawsuit.
Harris wrote that Stein, a Democrat, expressing views at odds with the law in the past "is no ground for a federal court to infer that he would abdicate his official duty to the state by subterfuge, mounting a sham defense of the statute."
The entire appeals court, based in Richmond, Virginia, agreed to hear the arguments after a majority on a three-judge panel declared last summer that Biggs hadn't scrutinized the matter properly and told her to try again.
The NAACP's lawyers asked that the full appeals court weigh in.
The civil rights group is pleased with Monday's decision, state NAACP president the Rev. Anthony Spearman said in an emailed statement. In such legal matters, "there is an attorney general elected by the people and assigned by the constitution to perform this duty," he added.
The six dissenting appeals court judges wrote three opinions among them. Biggs failed to consider a North Carolina law that requests a federal court allow both the legislative and executive branches to participate in lawsuits challenging a state law, Circuit Judge Marvin Quattlebaum wrote.
"Although federal courts need not completely defer to that public policy decision, the district court cannot fail to give the state's choice any weight," Quattlebaum wrote, adding that Biggs also set the bar to intervene too high.
GOP Sen. Danny Britt of Robeson County said in a news release that the legislature "has zero confidence" in Stein to defend the law in court and that Republicans will monitor closely Stein's actions in the case going forward. Stein spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed said the attorney general's office "will continue to vigorously defend the state in every matter we handle in accordance with the law."
Quattlebaum and Harris were on another three-judge panel that declared unanimously last December that Biggs wrongly blocked the 2018 voter ID law from being carried out before the trial because she said there was a strong likelihood that the NAACP's lawsuit would be successful. Those appeals judges decided Biggs erred when declaring the photo ID mandate was tainted by racial bias largely because a 2013 voter ID law had been struck down on similar grounds. The 2018 law was enacted a month after voters agreed to add a voter ID provision to the state constitution.