Two state constitutional amendments approved by North Carolina voters in November were voided Friday by a Wake County Superior Court judge who is originally from Wilkes County.
Judge G. Bryan Collins Jr. struck down amendments to the N.C. Constitution requiring voter photo identification at the polls and capping the state income tax rate, basing his decision on the fact that federal judges earlier declared district maps used in the 2016 legislative elections illegal racial gerrymanders.
Collins began his first eight-year term as a Superior Court judge in 2013. He began practicing law in Raleigh in 1985 and was appointed Wake’s first chief public defender in 2005. Collins is a 1978 graduate of Wilkes Central High School, cum laude graduate of Davidson College and graduate of the UNC School of Law. His wife, Allegra Milholland Collins, is an attorney and was elected to the N.C. Court of Appeals in November.
“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” wrote Collins, a Democrat, in his order cancelling the two amendments and the laws that put them on the ballot.
Collins wrote that the “unconstitutional racial gerrymander tainted” the three-fifth majorities in each chamber necessary to submit the amendments to voters. He said that amounted to “breaking the requisite chain of popular sovereignty between North Carolina citizens and their representatives.”
He sided with the state NAACP, which argued that the legislature was “illegally constituted” because of the earlier federal court ruling on the legislative districts.
State NAACP president Rev. T. Anthony Spearman said after Collins made his ruling, “The prior General Assembly’s attempt to use its ill-gotten power to enshrine a racist photo voter ID requirement in the state constitution was particularly egregious, and we applaud the court for invalidating these attempts at unconstitutional overreach.”
Republican legislative leaders vowed to appeal quickly and seek to delay Collins’ decision.
Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said in a written statement, “We are duty-bound to appeal this absurd decision. The prospect of invalidating 18 months of laws is the definition of chaos and confusion. Based on tonight’s opinion and others over the past several years, it appears the idea of judicial restraint has completely left the state of North Carolina.”
Berger said that based on Collins’ ruling, every law passed by the legislature elected in 2016 could be considered unconstitutional.
In legal arguments made last summer, lawyers for GOP legislative leaders sued by the NAACP said the General Assembly edition that put the amendments on the ballot was a lawful governing body. They pointed out that federal judges allowed the 2016 elections to proceed under the maps at issue.
The other amendment struck down by Collins lowered the cap on state income tax rates from 10 percent to 7 percent. Republican supporters portrayed the proposal as a way to keep recent GOP laws cutting tax rates in place after they left office.
The appeal of Collins’ ruling could reach the state Supreme Court, a seven-member body composed of at least five registered Democrats. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who opposed all six constitutional amendments on the November ballot, must soon fill a vacancy on the court.
The voter ID amendment passed with 55.5 percent of the vote while the amendment to cap the state income tax received 57 percent of the vote in November.
Two other amendments that passed in November, dealing with hunting rules and giving crime victims expanded rights in the court system, were not part of the lawsuit so weren’t affected by Friday’s ruling.
Legislators passed a law in December implementing the voter ID amendment by requiring that voters use one of several photo IÎ cards when casting ballots in person. Although it included many exceptions. critics said the law would disproportionately harm minority citizens and the poor.
Supporters of the voter ID requirement added it to the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment after federal judges struck down an election law that included the requirement and scaled back early in-person voting.
The voter ID law is facing other challenges, including a complaint that hundreds of thousands of N.C. university students might not be able to use their IDs to vote. Under the voter ID law, university IDs qualify as valid proof of identity at the polls as long as universities comply with certain criteria.