A court challenge to North Carolina’s voter identification law is on hold after the state’s NAACP requests that two state Supreme Court GOP judges recuse themselves, The Associated Press reported .
Phil Berger Jr. and former State Senator Tamara Barringer were disqualified from the case by the NAACP, which argued their political affiliation could affect their judgment.
The case began in 2018 when the NAACP challenged two amendments to the North Carolina state constitution. One is that voters must show photo ID at polling stations, and another provision lowers the cap on income tax rates.
The amendments were added to the ballots by the Republican-led General Assembly, although voters later approved it.
In 2019, a trial judge overturned the amendments, saying that many legislative bodies controlled by the GOP did not have the power to add the constitutional amendments, as it was found that lawmakers had been elected in districts. to racial prejudice two years earlier. However, an appeals court overturned the decision in 2020, which sent it back to the Supreme Court.
The state’s High Court was due to hear arguments in August, but the case was stayed after the NAACP asked Berger and Barringer to recuse themselves.
For more Associated Press reporting, see below.
Berger’s father is Republican State Senate Leader Phil Berger, who is a named defendant in the NAACP lawsuit to overturn photo ID legislation.
When Barringer was an MP, she voted in favor of holding the referendum on changing voter IDs. Both judges joined the court in January after winning statewide elections.
“I would have no confidence that Berger or Barringer would / could decide the issues of the case fairly,” said James Coleman, a Duke University law professor not involved in the litigation. “I expect them to vote their party’s position on the issues, no matter how persuasive the other side is.”
But Republicans who oppose any challenge say removing the two judges from the ruling – there is no one to replace them – would automatically sway the court in favor of overturning the voter identification law . Registered Democrats currently hold a 4-3 field advantage, with Barringer and Berger being two of three Republicans.
“The attempt to disqualify them from hearing matters that voters elected them to hear is a subversion of the will of the people and an insult to any informed voter,” said Speaker of the House Tim Moore, also quoted as accused in the NAACP lawsuit, wrote in a recent letter to the editor.
Martin Warf, a lawyer representing Moore and the elder Berger, pointed out that Berger is only a formal defendant – he must be appointed when a trial challenges the constitutionality of a law. And as far as Barringer is concerned, case law has established that being a former lawmaker who voted on a contested law is not in itself grounds for dismissal, Warf said.
The state’s judicial code of conduct states that judges must disqualify themselves, at the request of a legal party, if they have “personal knowledge of the disputed evidence” or if a close relative of the judge is “a party. to the procedure “.
The code requires disqualification “even though they are in fact impartial and able to fairly preside over the case before them,” wrote NAACP attorney Kym Hunter in July.
Recusal requests are not uncommon when lawyers fear that a judge’s family or financial relationships could influence the outcome or leave that impression. The appointed judge usually decides on the request. Refusals of disqualification for individual justice have been pronounced by the whole court on very rare occasions.
What was unusual about this case was that before either of the judges publicly indicated whether they would step down, the full state Supreme Court asked lawyers last month on both sides of the trial to submit briefs on more than 20 issues related to the problem. These briefs are expected next week.
“It’s not uncommon for the court to ask for additional information on a legal issue,” said Bob Edmunds, a North Carolina Supreme Court judge for 16 years until 2016. But so many requests information about the challenges, he added, “is something I have never observed before.”
The one that received the most attention: “Does this court have the power to require the involuntary challenge of a judge who does not believe that self-challenge is appropriate?”
The investigation raises the possibility that one or both of the judges indicated that they would not recuse themselves. Neither responded to a request for comment the Associated Press asked a court spokesperson to pass on to them.
The briefing order “gives the impression that the tribunal is dysfunctional” and gives the impression that judges “are not working together in the normal collegial manner,” said Jon Guze, a legal expert for the right-wing John Foundation. Locke.
Some states, including Michigan, Mississippi and Texas, allow fellow judges to disqualify a colleague who refuses to resign, according to the National Council of State Courts. But Guze said he was concerned disqualifications could turn into retaliation and become commonplace in North Carolina if Berger or Barringer are fired against their will.
Three former North Carolina chief justices – two elected as Democrats and one as a Republican – recently wrote in an editorial that recusal decisions during their tenure were made by the identified lawyer because “only the individual judge can examine his conscience ”.
“Only the seven members of our Supreme Court can determine whether this should remain the policy of challenge and recusal,” wrote former Chief Justices Jim Exum, Burley Mitchell and Mark Martin. “We trust our successors to resolve this difficult issue in a way that promotes fundamental fairness, protects the integrity of our justice system and, above all, upholds the rule of law.”