How North Carolina's Supreme Court election could determine the future of voting rights

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Part one of a three-part series on North Carolina's state Supreme Court election in November.

This is part one of a three-part series on North Carolina's state Supreme Court elections. Read part two here.

This fall, North Carolina voters will have a chance to decide who controls the state Supreme Court. While state judicial races often get overlooked, they often have huge implications for residents for years to come.

Democratic justices currently hold a 4-3 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court. That could change in November: Democratic Associate Justice Robin Hudson's term expires at the end of 2022, and she is not running for reelection. Democratic Judge Lucy Inman of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and her Republican colleague on the court, Judge Richard Dietz, are running to replace Hudson.

Democratic incumbent Supreme Court Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV is facing Republican Trey Allen, the general counsel for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, in his run for reelection.

For the past several years, the state's highest court has prevented some Republican lawmakers' ploys from taking permanent partisan control of the state Legislature, including ongoing attempts to gerrymander and disenfranchise many of the state's Black voters.

Though many of the GOP's efforts, led by state Sen. Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the Senate, have been blocked by the court, its influence on state elections could change come November if just one of the two Democrats running for spots on the Supreme Court loses.

In February, the state Supreme Court struck down newly drawn maps for North Carolina's 14 congressional districts. It was the culmination of a yearslong legal battle in which the state's GOP appealed several lower court decisions that found the new map to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

In a decision split along party lines, the Supreme Court affirmed that the maps, which were drawn and passed by the Legislature's Republican majority, violated the state Constitution by depriving voters of their "right to substantially equal voting power on the basis of partisan affiliation." Ruling in the case of Harper v. Hall, the majority found that "the General Assembly diminished and diluted the voting power of voters affiliated with one party on the basis of party affiliation."

The ruling was celebrated as a huge win for Democrats and voting rights advocates, but it was short-lived. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would consider an appeal from North Carolina Republicans that would determine whether state courts actually have the authority to order changes to federal elections, including redistricting.

The case, which could have enormous consequences for the power of state courts to address voting rights issues, is not expected to be heard by the Supreme Court until the fall, with a decision not expected until the summer of 2023 at the earliest. Until then, the future of North Carolina's district maps rests with the state's voters: With a Republican majority, the state Supreme Court would be likely to reevaluate the case and allow the GOP's gerrymandered maps to remain in effect.

The decision on redistricting is not the only voting rights ruling that has state Republicans closely watching the outcome of the upcoming state Supreme Court elections. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two Republican lawmakers — Timothy Moore, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, and Berger — have the right to join a lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of the state's voter ID law.

The ruling came after two state courts had rejected the lawmakers' request to join the lawsuit to defend the law on the grounds that the state's attorney general and board of elections were already defending it. The North Carolina Superior Court said in September 2021 that the voter ID law "was motivated at least in part by an unconstitutional intent to target African American voters."

Opponents of the voter ID law urged the court to take up the case as soon as possible, and it did. In August, the court ruled in North Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Tim Moore and Philip Berger that the question of whether "a legislature composed of a substantial number of legislators elected from unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered legislative districts" had the authority to pass constitutional amendments, like the voter ID law, should be sent back to the trial court for further consideration.

The use of the 2016 gerrymandered map was the result of a unanimous order by the panel of federal judges for the Middle District of North Carolina that had struck it down that it be used in the 2018 midterm elections because there would be "insufficient time" for the court to approve new maps.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.