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North Carolina voter ID lawsuit still heading for trial after judge declines to end challenge

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal trial over North Carolina's photo voter identification law remains set for May after a judge refused Wednesday to end efforts by civil rights groups that sued over the requirement on allegations that its provisions are marred by racial bias.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs denied a “summary judgment” motion filed 2 1/2 years ago for members of the State Board of Elections, which is implementing the 2018 ID law enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. After legal delays in state and federal courts, the photo ID requirement under that law began with municipal elections last fall and the March 5 primaries.

Attorneys for GOP legislative leaders also defending the law had told Biggs that they supported the board's motion, which if granted would have meant the law's defenders would have prevailed without additional evidence or testimony. A trial is scheduled to begin May 6.

The state NAACP and several local chapters contend that the photo ID mandate, along with other provisions in the law, violate the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by discriminating disproportionately against Black and Latino residents trying to vote.

State attorneys for the elections board wrote in their 2021 motion that the NAACP's evidence doesn't show discriminatory intent by the legislature, and that burdens imposed on voters who lacked ID are “extremely limited.” Compared to a 2013 voter ID law that was struck down, the 2018 law expands the number of qualifying IDs.

Biggs wrote she was denying the board's motion in part because “genuine disputes" over the facts in the case are present, and otherwise the legal parties “dispute the inferences which may reasonably be drawn from key undisputed facts.”

In late 2019, Biggs had issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law, saying it was tainted because the 2013 law had been struck down on similar grounds of racial bias. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed her decision, writing that Biggs had put too much emphasis on the past conduct of the General Assembly when evaluating the 2018 law.

On Wednesday, Biggs mentioned the reversal but said the defendants weren't necessarily entitled to a favorable ruling now because the standards for summary judgment are different. Any appeal of summary judgment decisions usually can happen after a trial.

Previous trial dates for the case have been postponed — once when the U.S. Supreme Court weighed Biggs' earlier refusal to allow GOP lawmakers to join the case and defend the law in court. The U.S. justices sided with the legislative leaders in 2022.

Biggs opened the door to move this case along last summer after the state Supreme Court determined the photo ID law comported with state constitution.