NC Felony Voting Law Struck Down As Unconstitutional

By Hayley Fowler | April 23, 2024, 4:54 PM EDT ·

A North Carolina federal judge has struck down the state's 147-year-old law making it a crime for convicted felons to vote, finding that the statute disproportionately targets Black voters and had been inconsistently enforced in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs on Monday granted summary judgment to two nonprofit groups challenging the law and, in doing so, permanently barred local district attorneys from enforcing it. She specifically found that the statute had been enacted in the late 1800s with discriminatory intent and continues to disenfranchise Black voters in violation of the equal protection clause, rejecting any notion that a new state Constitution from the 1970s somehow cleansed the law's "discriminatory history," as the defendants claimed.

If anything, Judge Biggs said, the revamped state Constitution expanded the law to ensure individuals convicted of felonies in other states also could not vote in North Carolina.

"Defendants concede that Black voters are still disproportionately impacted by the challenged statute," she said. "Far from completely curing the law, by expanding the scope to include people convicted of felonies in other states, the constitutional amendment has presumably disenfranchised more Black people."

Judge Biggs also said the law is unconstitutionally vague in violation of the due process clause because local district attorneys had interpreted it differently, with some choosing not to enforce the law when there was no evidence of intent while others enforced it regardless of intent.

The law at issue is North Carolina General Statute 163-275(5), which makes it a felony for any person convicted of a felony to vote in a primary or general election without first having their right of citizenship restored, according to the opinion. If someone is found to have voted while on parole, probation or post-release supervision for a felony conviction, Judge Biggs said, they may face up two years in prison under the law.

Action NC and the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, which are focused on increasing voter participation in Black and low-income communities, first sought to challenge the statute's constitutionality in a September 2020 lawsuit, which named the North Carolina Board of Elections, its individual members and the state's district attorneys as defendants.

The groups specifically called into question lawmakers' intent when they first passed the law in 1877, claiming it was never substantially amended and still unfairly targets Black voters, according to Monday's opinion. They subsequently moved for summary judgment last summer.

Shortly thereafter, state lawmakers amended the statute to add a scienter requirement that took effect Jan. 1. The change, however, was not retroactive, meaning any offenses that occurred before that date could still be prosecuted under the previous iteration, according to Judge Biggs.

A magistrate judge in January recommended throwing out the case altogether based on that amendment, finding that the challenge was moot.

But the nonprofits objected, which Judge Biggs partially sustained Monday in a separate opinion rejecting the magistrate's recommendation. In so ruling, the judge said the plaintiffs still had "a concrete interest, however small" in the litigation regardless of the legislative amendment.

Turning to the merits of the case in her separate opinion granting the nonprofits summary judgment, Judge Biggs noted that even the defendants had conceded "in an extraordinary and telling concession" that the law was originally enacted with discriminatory intent.

Although the defendants claimed the law had been cleansed of its "discriminatory taint" with the passage of North Carolina's new state Constitution in 1971, Judge Biggs said there is no supporting case law showing that changing one law can indirectly cleanse another.

The defendants also failed to show any connection between the state Constitution and the felony voting law sufficient to prove their cleansing theory, the judge said.

As for the due process challenge, Judge Biggs conceded that the law gave fair notice of the unlawful conduct. But, she said, the inconsistent interpretation and enforcement was enough to prove vagueness.

In a statement Tuesday, counsel and representatives from the nonprofits applauded the decision.

Mitchell D. Brown, senior counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who represented the nonprofits, said the ruling will "help ensure that voters who mistakenly think they are eligible to cast a ballot will not be criminalized for simply trying to reengage in the political process and perform their civic duty."

Jon Youngwood of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, who also represented the nonprofits, said Tuesday they are "thrilled" with the decision.

"The provision had wrongfully threatened citizens with wholly unwarranted felony charges since shortly after the Civil War," Youngwood said. "In doing so it chilled the right of North Carolina citizens to vote."

A representative for the North Carolina Department of Justice told Law360 on Tuesday that they are reviewing the decision.

The nonprofits are represented by Jonathan K. Youngwood, David Elbaum, Nihara K. Choudhri and Jacob Lundqvist of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Jacob H. Sussman, Jeffrey Loperfido and Mitchell D. Brown of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The state board of elections, its members and the district attorneys are represented by Elizabeth Curran O'Brien of the North Carolina Department of Justice.

The case is North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute et al. v. The North Carolina State Board of Elections et al., case number 1:20-cv-00876, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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