It was a bombshell of a ruling and, at first glance, a windfall for North Carolina progressives. Late Friday, a Wake County Superior Court judge threw out two amendments that N.C. liberals loathe — a requirement to implement voter ID in the state, and a cap on the state income tax rate. Voter approved both amendments last November, despite the protests of progressives across the state.
So how did Democrats and liberal groups react to this Publisher’s Clearing House knock on their doors? Mostly, they didn’t react at all. There was a smattering of celebratory emails from progressive groups Friday, but Democrats largely circled the ruling warily, poking at it intellectually and asking the obvious question: Is it too good to be true?
It might not be good at all.
The decision, from judge G. Bryan Collins, has a simple premise: North Carolina’s General Assembly is the product of districts so gerrymandered that its members don’t truly represent the state’s electorate. Therefore, says Collins, the General Assembly “is not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution.”
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It’s a reach of legal logic, a ruling that appears more like progressive fist-pounding than something that should come from the bench. It also prompts a follow-up question: If, as Collins contends, gerrymandering strips the General Assembly of the authority to amend the N.C. constitution, wouldn’t it also render invalid any laws these same legislators pass?
All of which is why the ruling is unlikely to survive the appeals N.C. Republicans already are promising. It’s also why Democrats were reticent late Friday, and Republicans were not. “This unprecedented and absurd ruling by a liberal judge is the very definition of judicial activism,” said NCGOP chairman Robin Hayes in a statement to The News & Observer later Friday.
Those same Republicans have now been handed a gift from Collins — a real-life example that overreaching judges want to bend the constitution for progressive purposes. It’s the go-to gripe whenever a ruling doesn’t go Republicans way, something that’s happened often since the GOP took power in North Carolina and passed a series of constitutionally iffy laws. Those include previous attempts at voter suppression that courts have vigorously slapped down.
The state’s most recent attempt at voter ID — one that followed the amendment Collins has temporarily invalidated — is also facing court challenges and other questions, including a new complaint that hundreds of thousands of N.C. university students might not be able to use their IDs to vote. There’s little question about the aim of such laws, and we hope courts will continue to thwart voter suppression — as well as GOP attempts to use gerrymandered maps to hold on to power.
But on Friday, Collins tainted legitimate court decisions by allowing Republicans to point to one fantastical ruling. He did North Carolinians, liberal or conservative, no favors.