The North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Thursday on whether convicted felons out on probation, parole, or with outstanding fines should be allowed to vote.
Filed in 2019, the lawsuit challenges the state law prohibiting people who have been convicted of felonies from voting until they complete their sentences, finish their time on parole and probation, and pay their fines.
The 1973 state law restored voting rights only after the discharge of the inmate, probationer, or parolee.
In March 2022, a trial court in Wake County ruled that the law violates the North Carolina Constitution because it discriminates against black voters.
According to data presented in the lawsuit, there are at least 56,516 people in the state who are denied the right to vote because of their outstanding fines related to their felony convictions. Of those, 40, 832 are on probation and 12,376 are on parole or post-release supervision. Based on that data, 5,075 people are denied the right to vote because they’re on probation.
Republicans appealed the trial court’s decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals; however, the North Carolina Supreme Court intervened at the request of the plaintiffs.
On Thursday, Pete Patterson, the attorney for the Republican legislative defendants, opened by stating, “Something has gone awry when a signature achievement of the civil rights movement is invalidated on the basis of racial discrimination.”
Patterson argued that the changes made in the law in the 1970s enfranchised felon voters by doing away with a requirement that they must ask a judge to restore their rights. Instead, their voting rights were automatically restored after they completed their sentence, whether they be black or white.
Stanton Jones, the attorney for the plaintiffs, opened by arguing that the state constitution doesn’t give the legislature a “special license to intentionally discriminate against African Americans.”
the North Carolina Constitution does, however, authorize the legislature to “prescribe by law the manner of rights restoration.”
“But any such law enacted by the legislature must comply with the equal protection clause,” Jones said.
Daryl Atkinson, co-attorney for the plaintiffs and co-director of the social justice organization Forward Justice, argued that the mechanism by which felons must pay fees to complete their sentences also acts as a payment to vote, which he said is unconstitutional, translating as the archaic law that one must own property to vote.
“It makes the voting rights of people convicted of felonies dependent on their own property and imposes unequal terms on such persons getting their voting rights back,” Atkinson said.
The court—newly flipped from a 4-3 Democrat majority to a 5-2 Republican majority—didn’t immediately rule on Community Success Initiative versus Moore, named for one of the social justice groups that brought the suit against Speaker of the House Tim Moore.