A Wake County judge dismissed five more cases Tuesday against protesters arrested last summer at the General Assembly.
Anne Salisbury, a retired District Court judge appointed to hear “Moral Monday” protest trials by the state Administrative Office of the Courts, cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in her decision.
Five protesters arrested July 15, 2013, and charged with second-degree trespass and violating N.C. Legislative Building rules argued that their constitutional rights were violated last summer.
More than 900 demonstrators were arrested outside General Assembly chambers last summer during protests that became widely known as “Moral Monday” rallies.
The protesters chanted, clapped, prayed and sang outside and inside the N.C. Legislative Building.
General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver picked up a bullhorn about the same time each week, calling out loudly that everybody had to leave the building or risk arrest.
Since the cases started making their way into District Court nearly a year ago, the outcomes have varied. Some protesters have been found guilty, others acquitted and others had their cases dismissed.
Two weeks ago, Judge Joyce Hamilton, a retired District Court judge who has presided over the bulk of the protesters’ trials, buoyed the hopes of defense lawyers when she threw out five cases from July 15, 2013, and offered her reasons why.
In June, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a Massachusetts law that had allowed wide protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics.
The justices, trying to strike a balance between public safety and free speech, said in their unanimous decision that attempts to create spaces on public property where protesting is not allowed does not withstand constitutional scrutiny.
In her written order filed Monday, Hamilton said General Assembly police “failed to explore less restrictive means” to try to deal with “the disturbance” that law enforcement officers contended had been created by the thousands gathered inside the Legislative Building.
Hamilton wrote that the “orders to disperse were not narrowly tailored” and therefore constituted an “unconstitutional burden” upon the demonstrators’ rights “to peacefully assembly and speak.”
Salisbury, who has agreed to issue a written order for her decision on Tuesday, made similar comments in open court on Tuesday.
Defense attorneys said it is too early to know whether similar rulings from two judges now will have sweeping impact.
“After trying these cases for almost a year, this is the first time we’ve had rulings on the constitutional issues,” said Scott Holmes, a Durham defense lawyer and director of the N.C. Central University Civil Litigation Law Clinic. “The constitutional issues that are present in these 10 cases are present in all other cases.”
More cases from July 15 are scheduled to go to trial Wednesday. Some of the protesters also scheduled for trial on Wednesday were arrested on June 24, 2013.
Defense lawyers are curious to see whether the judge will offer similar rulings for demonstrations that occurred on different days.