North Carolina has good reason for early Law Day celebration

Published April 25, 2024

By Mitch Kokai

We’ll have to wait until May 1 for the official commemoration of Law Day in the United States. But North Carolinians have a good excuse to celebrate three days early.

Established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower, Law Day aims “to celebrate the rule of law in a free society,” according to “Eisenhower, a former five-star Army general during World War II, saw first-hand what happens when the rule of law breaks down.”

Sixty-five years after Ike’s action, North Carolina’s Supreme Court unveiled three high-profile opinions on a single day: April 28, 2023. Each highlighted the rule of law’s importance.

In Harper v. Hall, justices threw out earlier redistricting rulings motivated by partisan goals. By a 5-2 vote, the court decided that the state’s judiciary would no longer wade into political battles over election maps.

Chief Justice Paul Newby’s majority opinion emphasized the proper role of courts in our system of government. “The constitution is our foundational social contract and an agreement among the people regarding fundamental principles,” Newby wrote. “It is for everyone, not just lawyers and judges.”

“The constitution is interpreted based on its plain language. The people used that plain language to express their intended meaning of the text when they adopted it,” Newby wrote. “The historical context of our constitution confirms this plain meaning.”

“As the courts apply the constitutional text, judicial interpretations of that text should consistently reflect what the people agreed the text meant when they adopted it. There are no hidden meanings or opaque understandings — the kind that can only be found by the most astute justice or academic. The constitution was written to be understood by everyone, not just a select few,” the chief justice added.

“The people did not intend their courts to serve as the public square for policy debates and political decisions,” Newby wrote. “Instead, the people act and decide policy matters through their representatives in the General Assembly. We are designed to be a government of the people, not of the judges. At its heart, this case is about recognizing the proper limits of judicial power.”

In Holmes v. Moore, the same 5-2 majority upheld North Carolina’s photo identification requirement for voters. Reversing an earlier decision that had been fast-tracked for partisan reasons, the court determined that a 2018 voter ID law complied with the state constitution.

“There is no legal recourse available for vindication of political interests, but this Court is yet again confronted with ‘a partisan legislative disagreement that has spilled out … into the courts,’” wrote Justice Phil Berger Jr.

“This Court once again stands as a bulwark against that spillover, so that even in the most divisive cases, we reassure the public that our state’s courts follow the law, not the political winds of the day,” Berger added.

In the third case, Community Success Initiative v. Moore, justices did not throw out one of their own prior decisions. Instead they overruled a lower court that had invalidated North Carolina’s 50-year-old felon voting law.

“Our state constitution ties voting rights to the obligation that all citizens have to refrain from criminal misconduct,” wrote Justice Trey Allen. “Specifically, it denies individuals with felony convictions the right to vote unless their citizenship rights are restored ‘in the manner prescribed by law.’”

“No party to this litigation disputes the validity of Article VI, Section 2(3) of the North Carolina Constitution. This case is therefore not about whether disenfranchisement should be a consequence of a felony conviction. The state constitution says that it must be, and we are bound by that mandate,” Allen added.

“The trial court ruled in plaintiffs’ favor and entered an order allowing all felons not in jail or prison to register and vote. In so doing, the trial court misapplied the law and overlooked facts crucial to its ruling,” Allen explained.

Trial judges made other errors, Allen wrote. “[T]he trial court wrongly imputed the discriminatory views of nineteenth century lawmakers to the legislators who made it easier for eligible felons of all races to regain their voting rights” in the 1970s.

“It is not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process,” he concluded.

In each of these three cases, the Supreme Court majority focused on the North Carolina Constitution and state law, not partisan political preferences. Justices removed the courts from the “public square for policy debates and political decisions.”

April 28 marks the one-year anniversary of the consequential decisions. Three days before national Law Day, perhaps North Carolinians can celebrate their own “Rule of Law” day.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.