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After recusal delays, NC court hears amendments case Feb. 14

Voter ID-North Carolina
North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts
In this photo provided by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. poses for a picture. On Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, two North Carolina Supreme Court justices, including Berger, have decided they won’t step away from hearing a case that challenges two constitutional amendments, one of which mandates photo voter identification.

North Carolina's highest court has rescheduled oral arguments for next month in a case over whether two amendments to the state constitution should be voided because legislators who approved the ballot referendums were elected from racially biased districts.

The state Supreme Court announced that litigation filed by the NAACP will be heard in its courtroom the morning of Feb. 14 — nearly six months after the arguments were once set.

The delay came after lawyers for the civil rights group asked that two associate justices be disqualified from the case because of conflicts. One was identified as Justice Phil Berger Jr., the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger, who is a defendant in the case. The other is Justice Tamara Barringer, who as a state senator in 2018 voted in favor of holding a referendum on the amendment requiring photo identification to vote. The other amendment reduced the cap on income tax rates. Voters backed both of them in November 2018.

The recusal motions prompted the court to ask lawyers a host of questions about the recusal and disqualification process, leading to a flurry of documents filed in the fall. In late December, the court declared that either a justice decides on their own whether to step away from a case or that person can ask their colleagues to decide instead.

On Friday, lawyers in the case were told of the new date for oral arguments shortly before Barringer and Berger released decisions saying they would remain on the case. Each wrote that they “can and will be fair and impartial.”

At the heart of the case is whether the changes to the constitution are nullified because the General Assembly at the time included legislators elected from nearly 30 legislative districts struck down by federal courts as illegal racial gerrymanders. A trial judge struck down the amendments in 2019. A panel of the state Court of Appeals overturned that decision in 2020, saying that otherwise any law would be subject to challenges now and in the future if judges declared illegal gerrymandering had occurred.

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