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April 16, 2014

Possible Judicial Bias in North Carolina Voter ID Case

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Remarks made by an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court at a Democratic Party fund-raising dinner, as well as her membership in a private organization, raise serious questions about her possible bias against the state’s new voter ID law. Under applicable judicial ethics rules, she should remove herself from the controversial litigation challenging the law before it reaches the state Supreme Court.

On Saturday, March 22, North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Cheri Beasley spoke at the Carteret County Jefferson Jackson Dinner. Beasley was appointed to the Supreme Court in December 2012 by lame duck Gov. Beverly Perdue (D). The justice is up for election for a new term on Nov. 4 of this year.

At the Democratic Party dinner, according to the Carteret County News-Times, Justice Beasley said that “a lot of folks are confused about [voter ID] and the confusion is by design.” Justice Beasley seems to believe before she has even reviewed any of the facts or evidence presented in the case that she knows what the intent of the state legislature was in passing this legislation. She has apparently already made up her mind about this law. Her remarks imply strongly that she may believe the unproven claims of opponents that the law was designed to suppress minority voters. It is hard to draw any other conclusion from Justice Beasley’s claim that the law was designed to be confusing.

Her conclusory statements at a Democratic Party dinner raise serious problems under the ethics rules that apply to judges. Although there is not yet a case before the state high court about the voter ID law, there is one on its way there. In August 2013, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute (an AFL-CIO affiliate) filed a state lawsuit claiming the voter ID law violates North Carolina’s constitution. While that case is currently in the Orange County Superior Court, there is no question that the case will be appealed (no matter what the outcome is in the trial court) and will eventually end up before Justice Beasley.

Under Canon 3A(6) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, a “judge should abstain from public comment about the merits of a pending proceeding in any state or federal court dealing with a case or controversy arising in North Carolina or addressing North Carolina law.” Further, under Canon 3C(1), a judge should disqualify herself “in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality may reasonably be questioned.”

Not only has Justice Beasley made statements casting doubts on her impartiality toward the voter ID law at issue in the state lawsuit, she is a member of an organization that has filed another lawsuit directly challenging the voter ID law. In August 2013, the North Carolina state chapter of the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of North Carolina claiming that the voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. This case has been consolidated with a similar lawsuit filed by Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department, as well as the League of Women Voters.

Yet according to Justice Beasley’s biography on her campaign website, she is a “Subscribing Life Member” of the NAACP from “1997 – present.” (In an odd discrepancy, her membership in the NAACP is not listed on her official biography at the North Carolina court website.) Thus, Justice Beasley is a member of an organization that has filed a federal lawsuit against the same voter ID that is also at issue in a state lawsuit that will reach her court on appeal. Even if she had not criticized the voter ID law at issue in North Carolina state and federal courts at a political fundraiser, she ought to recuse herself because of her continuing membership in the NAACP, which is a party in the federal lawsuit.

Justice Beasley, who lectures other state judges on the rules of conduct at the New District Court Judges’ School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government, is surely aware of the requirements of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Her statements and NAACP membership make it clear that her “impartiality may reasonably be questioned.” Accordingly, she should announce her recusal from any involvement in the pending state lawsuit over North Carolina’s voter ID law.

While it is true that the case is not yet directly before her, it is still pending before the trial court. Moreover, she is up for election for a new term on the Supreme Court on Nov. 4. She has a moral obligation to inform the public whether or not she intends to comply with the ethics rules governing state judges in North Carolina. If she refuses to comply with the rules and remove herself from this case, voters have a right to know that before they enter the voting booth.

 - Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally published by the Civitas Institute

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