Over the past six years, North Carolina has pushed some of the most restrictive legislation in the country, civil liberties groups say — and they caution that the state’s push could represent the proverbial “canary in the coalmine.”
In two separate cases within the past few weeks, the North Carolina legislature suffered significant defeats in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the first, the high court declined to revive the state’s restrictive voter ID law, a law that gained national attention last year when a federal appeals court ruled its provisions deliberately “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in an effort to depress black turnout at the polls.
On May 22, the Supreme Court threw out two of the state’s congressional districts, ruling that lawmakers unconstitutionally used race as a predominant factor when drawing the maps.
Civil rights organizations celebrated these actions by the courts.
But North Carolina Republican legislators remain undeterred. Within hours after learning their appeal would not be heard on the voter ID case, state GOP leaders pledged to pass a new bill.
While other states have leveraged GOP majorities in state legislatures to push through conservative policies, North Carolina outpaces other states in passing laws that dial back civil liberties, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“There’s clearly been a broader breakdown in democratic culture in North Carolina that is extending beyond these discriminatory laws,” Weiser said. “I think of North Carolina as a canary in the coalmine.”
In North Carolina, civil liberty groups say, restrictive legislation follows a familiar pattern.
The Republican-dominated state legislature, armed with a veto-proof supermajority secured by carefully crafted gerrymandering, passes controversial legislation.
The law is challenged in court.
The state loses.
North Carolina is not the only state to take advantage of a 2010 Republican legislative sweep to put in place both legislative maps and voting laws that would entrench their current legislative majority.
In Texas, the courts have struck down strict voter ID laws and several congressional districts that were found to intentionally discriminate against minority voters. The Supreme Court advised a lower court examine Virginia’s redistricting efforts for signs of racial bias and gerrymandering. In a similar case in Alabama, the high court ruled 5 to 4 that the state legislature relied too heavily on race when it drew districts.
Rachel Jordan protests outside the House gallery during a special session of the North Carolina General Assembly at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, Dec. 16, 2016.
But civil liberty experts say North Carolina has been unique in the breadth and scope of what they call its restrictive legislation.
“North Carolina Republicans, I think it’s fair to say, have gone further than their counterparts in any other state in using their total control over state government to manipulate election rules in such a way as to advantage their own party,” says Zachary Roth, former national correspondent for MSNBC.com and author of “The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy.” “We’ve seen that in a number of states, but North Carolina Republicans have been the most brazen and aggressive about it.”
Despite being rebuffed by the courts on legislation ranging from stripping the powers of the state’s Democratic governor, to portions of the infamous “bathroom bill,” reproductive rights for women, stringent voting restrictions and gerrymandering based on race, many experts believe there is no end in sight.
“Republicans still hold all the cards,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan group Common Cause North Carolina. “These court decisions are not deterring them at all, they’re just pivoting.”
With a supermajority in the legislature, Republicans can pass laws without a single Democratic vote. Because of this, substantial and consequential laws are being decided not on the assembly floor, but in the courtroom.
And as the state wages these lengthy court battles, the taxpayers are left footing this ever-rising bill.
As of November 2016, North Carolina Republican lawmakers had spent more than $10.5 million litigating controversial laws since coming to power in 2011, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. That total has only grown higher as cases have wound their way through the appeals process.
Almost half that money — $4.9 million — went to defend the state’s sweeping voter law, which was overturned by a panel of federal of judges. On May 15, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s appeal. Lawmakers spent an additional $3.7 million defending the redistricting plans that were also overturned by the courts.
As the legislature proposes cuts to arts and physical education in North Carolina schools, residents wonder if this money tied up in courts, litigating highly unpopular legislation like the “bathroom bill,” could be better spent.
“For those of us that live in the state, this is sad because that’s money that might have gone to public education or other things that are important to the citizens of North Carolina,” says Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But the state legislature obviously doesn’t seem to care. They’re continuing to try and press their claims, or defend against their claims, and the cost just doesn’t seem to be a factor.”
Advocacy groups worry that North Carolina could set a dangerous precedent for rest of the country if this rule-until-the-courts-intervene style of governance continues.
“I fear that once we start going down that path of allowing temporary legislative majorities to change the rules to entrench their power and benefit themselves in a variety of ways, regardless of what the people want, that it will snowball,” Weiser said.