North Carolina Supreme Court rules that racially gerrymandered legislature does not have unlimited authority to change NC’s Constitution
RALEIGH, N.C.— In a groundbreaking ruling today, in agreement with Plaintiffs represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Justice Forward, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the North Carolina Constitution imposes limits on a racially gerrymandered legislature’s authority to initiate the process of amending the Constitution. The court remanded the matter back to the trial court for further fact-finding with clear guidance.
The court agreed with the North Carolina NAACP that this case posed an extraordinary circumstance of legislative overreach: “What is extraordinary about these events is not that a legislative body was composed in part of legislators elected from unconstitutional districts. That has occurred on numerous occasions in recent years just in North Carolina alone…. Rather, what makes this case so unique is that the General Assembly, acting with the knowledge that twenty-eight of its districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered and that more than two thirds of all legislative districts needed to be redrawn to achieve compliance with the Equal Protection Clause, chose to initiate the process of amending the state constitution at the last possible moment prior to the first opportunity North Carolinians had to elect representatives from presumptively constitutional legislative districts.”
Kym Meyer, Senior Attorney with SELC explained, “The court’s ruling is an historic win for democracy and the people of North Carolina. North Carolina’s Constitution can be amended only by the will of the people. A supermajority engineered through an unconstitutional racial gerrymander does not have unlimited authority to alter the constitution. As it has throughout its history, the NAACP stood up where it saw injustice, and today we stand proud in defeating the legislature’s illegal and racist attempt to entrench its illegitimate power. Once again, we see how important North Carolina’s courts are in protecting our democracy when our legislators violate the constitution.”
Caitlin Swain, Co-Director of Forward Justice explained, “Today’s ruling is the perfect illustration of how the concept of checks and balances in our democracy is supposed to work. This historic decision, protecting the cornerstone promise of our democracy, is the result of the kind of careful judgment that North Carolinians deserve from our judiciary. In North Carolina, constitutional officers are elected representatives charged with upholding their oath to the constitution and protecting our fundamental rights. The North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision today gives our clients and the people of this state renewed hope that their fight for a representative democracy, equal justice, and accountability–however long the road– is not in vain.”
North Carolina NAACP President Deborah Maxwell explained, “Today’s decision sends a watershed message in favor of accountability and North Carolina democracy. Rigging elections by trampling on the rights of Black voters has consequences. No legislature has the right to use racially gerrymandered maps—infecting more than 2/3 of the districts of this state — to steal power from the people to change our state’s constitution. The NC NAACP was proud in 2018 to stand up against this widespread abuse by the NC legislature and we are proud today to have prevailed in our fight to protect the sanctity of the North Carolina Constitution. We vow to continue Forward Together, Not One Step Back in our fight for the rights of the people.”
After reversing the decision of the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court directed the trial court to consider three additional questions in light of the highest court’s clear guidance: “whether there was a substantial risk that each challenged constitutional amendment would (1) immunize legislators elected due to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering from democratic accountability going forward; (2) perpetuate the continued exclusion of a category of voters from the democratic process; or (3) constitute intentional discrimination against the same category of voters discriminated against in the reapportionment process that resulted in the unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts.”
This case began in 2018, when the North Carolina NAACP challenged two constitutional amendment ballot questions – one imposing a photo ID requirement to vote and one lowering the state income tax cap – on the grounds that the North Carolina legislature was only able to achieve the constitutionally required supermajority by relying on the racial gerrymander. In 2017, the districts were deemed not only unconstitutional, but also one of the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court. However, before remedial elections took place, the legislators rushed to use their unconstitutional power to place amendments on the ballot to change the state’s constitution. Without the illegal racial gerrymandering, the legislature could not have met the constitutionally required threshold to propose any of these constitutional amendments.
In 2019, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled for the North Carolina NAACP and declared the amendments void (Superior Court Order). That ruling was overturned in a two to one decision of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which brought the matter to the Supreme Court. A timeline of the case to date can be found here, and a brief timeline outlining recent challenges to North Carolina’s discriminatory photo voter ID laws can be found here. The North Carolina NAACP is represented by SELC, Forward Justice, and Attorney Irving Joyner.
This ruling comes after the North Carolina Supreme Court held earlier this year that the N.C. General Assembly once again engaged in unconstitutional redistricting in 2021 (Supreme Court Order). A copy of today’s order can be found here https://appellate.nccourts.org/opinions/?c=1&pdf=41699
About the N.C. NAACP
Founded in 1939, the NC NAACP is part of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its branches throughout North Carolina are premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. www.naacpnc.org
About Forward Justice
Forward Justice is a nonpartisan law, policy and strategy center dedicated to advancing racial, social, and economic justice in the U.S. South. Our work catalyzes success for social movements and expands opportunities for people affected by injustice. www.ForwardJustice.org