Court challenge to voter ID amendment demands unbiased “referees”

Court challenge to voter ID amendment demands unbiased “referees”

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Imagine that you are a basketball player. You show up at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Dean Dome or PNC Arena and your opponent’s three-point line is about 6 feet closer to the hoop than yours is.

You probably think, “OK that’s weird,” but then you go looking for the referee to tell them about the rigged lines. You find the referee sitting in your opponent’s locker room, smiling and laughing with one of the players.

It turns out they’re parent and child.

What are your expectations now about how the basketball game is going to go? Do you think it will be fair? Do you think the referee will be impartial? That’s a real problem because even if the game proceeds as usual, it will be impossible to ever trust that the outcome wasn’t predetermined by the referee.

Now imagine it isn’t a basketball game or even an ACC championship on the line. It’s your freedom to vote.

That’s what’s happening right now in our state.

In 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a voter identification constitutional amendment and put it on the ballot. That anti-voter amendment, which, after implementing legislation, forces people to carry a specific form of ID in order to cast a ballot, is a deliberately constructed barrier that targets Black, brown, young, and new Americans, in an attempt to silence those voices.

This amendment would almost certainly have never made it onto the ballot if lawmakers hadn’t been packed into illegally gerrymandered districts via maps that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as racially discriminatory.

In other words, a legislature that was elected under racially gerrymandered maps voted on and approved a proposal that discriminates against Black and brown voters. And now the North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether that was constitutional. The anti-voter law must be struck down, just as the rigged maps were struck down.

The authors of this scheme — the parties who, tragically, seek to divide and distract us so often with racist dog whistles — have, however, one last card to play. They have a North Carolina Supreme Court justice who just happens to be the son of one of the legislative leaders that pushed through this anti-voter measure. Justice Phil Berger Jr. wants to rule on a lawsuit in which his father, Sen. Phil Berger Sr., is one of the defendants.

Justice Phil Berger Jr. and Justice Tamara Barringer

It’s just like the basketball game — the lines are rigged, and one of the referees is closely related to one of the players. If we want to have any confidence or trust in the outcome, the game can’t go forward like this.

What’s more, Berger, Jr. isn’t the only “referee” in this matter with, at a minimum, the appearance of a glaring bias. Another Supreme Court justice, Tamara Barringer, was a state senator who voted in favor of the voter ID ballot amendment when it was approved in June 2018. Our state’s judicial codes of conduct clearly state that “no judge may sit on [their] own case.” Justice Barringer is not even feigning impartiality in her decision to not step back from this case.

Jim Crow was so pervasive because it encompassed every part of society, every lever of power — lawmakers, executives, judges, and juries. Black people couldn’t get fair trials because they couldn’t get juries of their peers. All-white juries were just another arm of the Jim Crow power structure.

What we’re seeing today isn’t far removed from that sordid era. The powers that be have installed their own referees to ensure they get the outcome they want to see. Meanwhile, communities of color are being silenced and losing their political power.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Justices Berger and Barringer to do the right thing. They should recuse themselves from the case. If they won’t do the right thing, the court itself should enforce such an outcome. There are anti-bias rules in our judicial code for just this reason. Justices Berger and Barringer should follow them.

After all, in the end isn’t merely about a game — it’s about a precious constitutional freedom.

Melissa Price Kromm is the executive director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections.