RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The new Republican majority on North Carolina's Supreme Court agreed on Friday to rehear redistricting and voter identification cases less than two months after the court's previous edition, led by Democrats, issued major opinions going against GOP legislators who had been sued.
The extraordinary decisions, granted in orders backed by five justices with the Republican voter registrations on the seven-member court, mean the issues will return to the court for oral arguments in mid-March. With hopes of getting new legal results, lawmakers led by House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger asked two weeks ago that the justices rehear the litigation.
The two Democratic justices lamented the orders and said they stood against more than 200 years of court history in which rehearings have been exceedingly rare. They said it appeared it was happening simply because the court's partisan makeup had changed. Two new Republican justices took office in early January after winning November elections for seats held by Democrats.
"The legal issues are the same; the evidence is the same; and the controlling law is the same," Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote in the dissent of the order agreeing to rehear the redistricting case. "The only thing that has changed is the political composition of the Court."
The GOP lawmakers' attorneys contend the previous 4-3 Democratic majority got it wrong in December when they struck down a state Senate map the legislature drew and upheld congressional boundaries drawn by trial judges but opposed by Republicans. They said those same Democrats erred when upholding the invalidation of a 2018 law requiring photo identification to vote when they applied the wrong legal standard.
The rehearings ultimately could lead to new opinions that reinstate the photo ID mandate and strike down precedent from the Supreme Court in February 2022 declaring the state constitution outlawed extensive partisan gerrymandering. That landmark redistricting ruling prevented maps drawn by Republican legislators that were expected to secure long-term Republican advantages in the General Assembly and within the state's congressional delegation.
The court's rehearing orders mentioned little about the topics to be reconsidered. Rather, the court said a case can be reheard "if the petitioner makes a satisfactory showing that the opinion may be erroneous." The legislators' petition or arguments met the requirements, the orders said.
But Earls wrote Friday's action marked a "radical break" from the court's history. Since 1993 alone, she said, rehearing had been allowed in only two cases out of 214 such requests.
"Respect for the institution and the integrity of its processes kept opportunities for rehearing narrow in scope and exceedingly rare," she wrote. "Today, that tradition is abandoned." Associate Justice Mike Morgan also dissented.
Moore and Berger had not offered public comment on the orders by late Friday.
The Republican majority on the court also threw out a petition filed earlier this week by redistricting lawsuit plaintiff Common Cause urging that the GOP requests be denied and the ruling remain intact. The advocacy group, which argued the rehearing request was improper, is "disappointed the Court is giving legislators another bite at the apple," said Hilary Klein, an attorney who filed the Common Cause motion.
"We will continue to fight for the rights of all people in North Carolina to vote freely and fairly and look forward to making that case again before the court," Jeff Loperfido, one of the lawyers who worked to overturn the voter ID law, said in a statement. Klein and Loperfido work with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.