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North Carolina State Conference of NAACP v. Cooper

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 2, 2019

ROY ASBERRY COOPER III, in his official capacity as the Governor of North Carolina; ROBERT CORDLE, in his official capacity as Chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections; STELLA ANDERSON, in her official capacity as Secretary of the North Carolina State Board of Elections; KENNETH RAYMOND, JEFFERSON CARMON III, and DAVID C. BLACK, in their official capacities as members of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, [1] Defendants.


          Loretta C. Biggs United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit against the above-named Defendants, named only in their official capacities, challenging the validity of specific provisions of Senate Bill 824, titled “An Act to Implement the Constitutional Amendment Requiring Photographic Identification to Vote, ” (“S.B. 824” or “the Act”). (See ECF No. 1.) Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief with respect to the challenged provisions of S.B. 824 which they allege violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (the “VRA”), 52 U.S.C. § 10301, [2] as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.[3] (Id. ¶¶ 105-46.) The following motions are before the Court: (i) Motion to Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, Motion to Stay filed by State Board of Elections Chair Robert Cordle, State Board of Elections Secretary Stella Anderson, and State Board of Elections members Ken Raymond, Jefferson Carmon III, and David Black (collectively “State Board Defendants”), (ECF No. 42); (ii) Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for a Stay filed by Roy Asberry Cooper III (the “Governor” or “Governor Cooper”), (ECF No. 44); and (iii) Plaintiffs' Motion for Scheduling Conference and Order, (ECF No. 54). For the reasons that follow, State Board Defendants' motion is denied, the Governor's motion is granted, and Plaintiffs' motion is denied as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In November 2018, North Carolina voters approved a ballot measure amending the North Carolina State Constitution to require voters to provide photographic identification before voting in person.[4] (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 62, 64.) The ballot measure was placed on the November 2018 ballot following the North Carolina General Assembly's (“General Assembly”) passage of Session Law 2018-128. (ECF No. 43-5 ¶¶ 12-13, 22.)

         On December 5, 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly (“General Assembly”) passed S.B. 824, which was thereafter vetoed by the Governor, on December 14, 2018. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 1, 78.) The General Assembly nevertheless codified S.B. 824 into law-Session Law 2018-144-by an override of the Governor's veto on December 19, 2018. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 79.)

         The instant lawsuit was filed in this Court on December 20, 2018 against the Governor and members of the North Carolina State Board of Elections in their official capacities. (See Id. at 1.) In the Complaint, Plaintiffs challenge the provisions of S.B. 824 which impose voter photo identification requirements, as well as the provisions “that expand the number of poll observers and the number[ ] of people who can challenge ballots.” (Id. ¶¶ 106-07.) Plaintiffs allege that “[t]hese provisions, separately and together, will have a disproportionately negative impact on minority voters, ” (id. ¶ 80), ultimately resulting in “the effective denial of the franchise and dilution of [African American and Latino] voting strength, ” (id. ¶ 7). Plaintiffs' Complaint further alleges that the challenged provisions “impose discriminatory and unlawful burdens on the right to vote that are not justified by any legitimate or compelling state interest.” (Id. ¶ 8.) Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief to prevent Defendants “from implementing, enforcing, or giving effect to the [challenged] provisions of S.B. 824.” (Id. ¶ 147.) All Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[5] (ECF Nos. 42, 44.) In the alternative, Defendants seek a stay of this action pending resolution of two state court proceedings- namely, Holmes, et al. v. Moore, et al., No. 18 CVS 15292 (“Holmes”), [6] currently pending in Wake County Superior Court, and North Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, et al. v. Tim Moore, et al., No. 18 CVS 9806 (“NAACP”), [7]currently pending before the North Carolina Court of Appeals.


         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), a party may seek dismissal based on the court's “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Subject-matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue that relates to the court's power to hear a case and must be decided before a determination on the merits of the case. Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 479- 80 (4th Cir. 2005). A motion under Rule 12(b)(1) raises the question “whether [the plaintiff] has a right to be in the district court at all and whether the court has the power to hear and dispose of [the] claim.” Holloway v. Pagan River Dockside Seafood, Inc., 669 F.3d 448, 452 (4th Cir. 2012). The burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction rests with the plaintiff. McNutt v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp. of Ind., 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936); Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). When evaluating a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, a court should grant the motion “only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint, ” including whether it meets the pleading standard of Rule 8(a)(2). Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). Rule 8(a)(2) requires a complaint to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), thereby “giv[ing] the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)).

         “A district court should dismiss a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if, accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual inferences in the plaintiff's favor, the complaint does not allege ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Vitol, S.A. v. Primerose Shipping Co., 708 F.3d 527, 539 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is plausible when the complaint alleges facts that suffice to allow “the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Johnson v. Am. Towers, LLC, 781 F.3d 693, 709 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). A complaint may fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted in two ways: first, by failing to state a valid legal cause of action, i.e., a cognizable claim, see Holloway, 669 F.3d at 452; or second, by failing to allege sufficient facts to support a legal cause of action, see Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013).

         While a court's evaluation of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss is “generally limited to a review of the allegations of the complaint itself, ” a court may also “consider a document submitted by the movant that was not attached to or expressly incorporated in a complaint, so long as the document was integral to the complaint and there is no dispute about the document's authenticity.” Goines v. Valley Cmty. Servs. Bd., 822 F.3d 159, 165-66 (4th Cir. 2016). Here, no party has challenged the authenticity or relevance of the documents attached to Defendants' motions to dismiss. Therefore, in addition to considering the Complaint, the Court will also consider the exhibits attached to the instant motions to dismiss. See id.


         A. State Board Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         State Board Defendants first argue that “[t]he ongoing [state court] proceedings in [the] NAACP and Holmes litigation suggest that this Court should, at this point, decline to or at least temporarily abstain from the exercise of federal jurisdiction based upon federalism concerns.” (ECF No. 43 at 9.) They contend that the two state court proceedings “currently underway . . . may resolve the outstanding issues related to the Act and thereby obviate the need for the Court's adjudication of the Act's validity.” (Id.) Thus, according to State Board Defendants, “[t]he facts of this case are appropriate for application of the Pullman abstention doctrine.” (Id.) Plaintiffs argue, in response, that “abstention would be inappropriate here” because Defendants have failed to “identif[y] a single provision in S.B. 824 that could be construed in a way to obviate the need to address Plaintiffs' federal law challenges to S.B. 824.” (ECF No. 50 at 24.)

         The Supreme Court has “often acknowledged that federal courts have a strict duty to exercise the jurisdiction that is conferred upon them by Congress.” Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 716 (1996) (citing cases). See Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (explaining that federal courts have a “virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them”). However, “a federal district court is vested with discretion” to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction “in deference to state court resolution of underlying issues of state law.” Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534 (1965). “Abstention doctrines constitute ‘extraordinary and narrow exception[s]' to a federal court's duty to exercise the jurisdiction conferred on it.” Martin v. Stewart, 499 F.3d 360, 363 (4th Cir. 2007) (alteration in original) (quoting Quackenbush, 517 U.S. at 716, 728). It is therefore well-settled that “[a]bstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the exception, not the rule.” Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 813; Gannett Co. v. Clark Constr. Grp., Inc., 286 F.3d 737, 741 (4th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, the Supreme Court has “carefully defined” the circumstances under which abstention is permissible. Martin, 499 F.3d at 363 (quoting New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 359 (1989)). One such circumstance, known as the Pullman abstention doctrine, [8] exists where: (1) there is “an unclear issue of state law presented for decision”; and (2) the resolution of that unclear issue of state law “may moot or present in a different posture the federal constitutional issue such that the state law issue is potentially dispositive.” Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Md. State Bd. for Higher Educ., 710 F.2d 170, 174 (4th Cir. 1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). See Nivens v. Gilchrist, 444 F.3d 237, 245 (4th Cir. 2006) (“Pullman abstention requires federal courts to abstain from deciding an unclear area of state law that raises constitutional issues because state court clarification might serve to avoid a federal constitutional ruling.”). As explained by the Supreme Court, “[b]y abstaining in such cases, federal courts will avoid both unnecessary adjudication of federal questions and ‘needless friction with state policies.'” Haw. Hous. Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 236 (1984) (quoting R.R. Comm'n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 500 (1941)).

         In arguing that “both criteria announced in Pullman are present here, ” State Board Defendants contend that “the Act presents unclear issues of state law, ” and “resolution of the Holmes lawsuit may moot or otherwise alter the posture of the federal constitutional issues implicated in this lawsuit.” (ECF No. 43 at 10, 11.) Indeed, “Pullman abstention is appropriate when a plaintiff brings a federal case that requires the federal court to interpret an unclear state law.” Nivens, 444 F.3d at 246 (citing Pullman, 312 U.S. at 498-99). Here, however, Plaintiffs' Complaint does not raise issues requiring an interpretation or clarification of an unclear state law. Plaintiffs do not contend, nor does the Court find, that the challenged provisions of the statute at issue-S.B. 824-are unclear or ambiguous. The clear language set forth in the challenged provisions of S.B. 824 unambiguously requires registered voters to produce photographic identification to vote, increases the number of poll observers who may attend any voting place, and expands the grounds upon which any voter may challenge a person casting a vote. (See 2018 N.C. Sess. Laws 144 §§ 1.2(a), 3.1(c), 3.3.) “There [are] no other provision[s] of the Act . . . which would suggest that [S.B. 824] does not mean exactly what it says.” Midkiff, 467 U.S. at 236. “Thus, abstention is not indicated if the state law is clear on its face.” 17A Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 4242, at 331-32 (3d ed. 2007). See Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 251 n.14 (1967) (“We have frequently emphasized that abstention is not to be ordered unless the statute is of an uncertain nature, and is obviously susceptible of a limiting construction.”). As explained by the Supreme Court, “[w]here there is no ambiguity in the state statute, the federal court should not abstain but should proceed to decide the federal constitutional claim.” Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 439 (1971). See Int'l Coll. of Surgeons v. City of Chicago, 153 F.3d 356, 365 (7th Cir. 1998) (holding that Pullman abstention was inappropriate where, among other things, the state statutory scheme was “not uncertain”); but see AFA Distrib. Co. v. Pearl Brewing Co., 470 F.2d 1210, 1212 (4th Cir. 1973) (concluding that “the district court should have applied the [Pullman] abstention doctrine” “[b]ecause of the ambiguity in the statute and because of an inchoate constitutional question”).

         Where, as here, Plaintiffs mount a facial challenge to the constitutionality and lawfulness of a statute, “the pivotal question in determining whether abstention is appropriate is whether the statute is ‘fairly subject to an interpretation which will render unnecessary or substantially modify the federal constitutional question.'” City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 468 (1987) (quoting Harman, 380 U.S. at 534-35). State Board Defendants argue that “abstention is appropriate here because the constitutionality of the Act has already been challenged in North Carolina state court [in Holmes], and a decision in that action may eliminate the need for this Court to decide the constitutional issues presented in this lawsuit.” (ECF No. 43 at 9.) However, “[a]bstention is not in order simply because a pending state-court proceeding involves the same subject matter.” Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69, 72 (2013). As instructed by the Supreme Court, “[w]here a federal court's jurisdiction is properly invoked, and the relevant state constitutional and statutory provisions are plain and unambiguous, there is no necessity for the federal court to abstain pending determination of the state law questions in a state court.” Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678, 690 (1964); see Hill, 482 U.S. at 469 (“[W]hen a statute is not ambiguous, there is no need to abstain even if state courts have never interpreted the statute.”). In essence, “[s]ince ‘the naked question [before this Court], uncomplicated by [ambiguous language], is whether the Act on its face is unconstitutional,' abstention from federal jurisdiction is not required.” Midkiff, 467 U.S. at 237 (third alteration in original) (quoting Constantineau, 400 U.S. at 439). See Mt. Airy Bus. Ctr., Inc. v. City of Kannapolis, N.C. , No. 1:10CV307, 2014 WL 229564, at *4 (M.D. N.C. Jan. 21, 2014) (concluding that “Pullman abstention is not appropriate” where the plaintiff is “not asking this court to interpret the City's regulatory scheme; [rather, the plaintiff] contends that the ordinances deprive [it] of rights protected by the federal constitution”), adopted by 2014 WL 975516 (M.D. N.C. Mar. 12, 2014).

         Moreover, beyond conclusory assertions, State Board Defendants fail to explain how a ruling in the state court actions as to the lawfulness of S.B. 824, or the session law that placed the voter identification constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot, would eliminate or substantially modify the federal constitutional issues raised in Plaintiffs' Complaint. See Hendon v. N.C. State Bd. of Elections, 633 F.Supp. 454, 465 (W.D. N.C. 1986) (“It would defeat the purpose of the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Acts if the ‘assertion of a federal ...

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