Judge: No quick trial on N.C. voting law changes

Associated PressDecember 12, 2013 

— A federal judge has ruled there will be no trial on North Carolina’s Republican-backed voting law changes until after the 2014 elections, though she signaled that motions will be considered to bar the measures from taking effect until the case is resolved.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Joi Peake said Thursday the issues raised in the three lawsuits challenging the new law are too complicated to be resolved before next year’s elections. Peake set a bench trial for July 2015.

Peake added that the court will hear requests in summer 2014 for an injunction to block some or all of the new law’s provisions from taking effect until after the trial.

“I’m concerned there would be insufficient time for the plaintiffs to get the discovery they need,” Peake said.

The U.S. Justice Department, the state chapter of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and other groups have sued Gov. Pat McCrory and the North Carolina Board of Elections over the voting changes. Those separate cases probably will be consolidated at trial before U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush.

The changes approved in the waning hours of this year’s legislative session include provisions cutting the early voting period by a week, increasing access for partisan poll watchers and eliminating a popular high school civics program that encouraged students to register to vote before their 18th birthdays.

Also at issue is a new requirement for voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls starting with the next presidential election in 2016.

The plaintiffs allege the election changes violate the civil rights-era U.S. Voting Rights Act. Most of the plaintiffs have pushed for the trial to be held before the 2014 election. They believe a favorable ruling would dismantle new requirements that they say represent a cynical partisan attempt to tamp down voter turnout among the elderly, college students and African-Americans. Those groups are considered more likely to vote for Democrats.

“The voters deserve certainty,” Allison Riggs, the lawyer representing the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told the judge.

The Justice Department favored the longer schedule, but said it would pursue an injunction to stop the changes from taking effect before trial.

Lawyers for the state government and McCrory told Peake it will take them at least a year to prepare for trial. They are also expected to oppose any motions seeking to delay implementation of the changes.

“We certainly take it very seriously if the right to vote is infringed,” said Senior Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters for the defense. “We also take it very seriously when the people elect representatives and those representatives enact laws.”

Next year’s ballot will include the first state legislative races held since the Republican-dominated General Assembly approved a sweeping conservative agenda. Included are tax cuts that largely favor corporations and the wealthy, decreases to per-pupil spending for public education, and legislation that is expected to result in the shutdown of most of the state’s abortion clinics.

Also at stake is the high-profile race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Kay Hagan, and control of the state’s 13 Congressional districts.

Though his side did not get the quick trial date it wanted, North Carolina NAACP President William Barber nonetheless declared the hearing a success.

“We live in a state right now where there are a group of extremist legislators and a governor … who want to move fast on taking away people’s voting rights, and then when the people want to have those voting rights examined under the auspices of the Constitution, they want to slow down everything,” Barber said. “We believe we had a victory today. … We believe the court will provide an injunction.”

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