United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
NORTH CAROLINA STATE CONFERENCE OF THE NAACP, CHAPEL HILL-CARRBORO NAACP, GREENSBORO NAACP, HIGH POINT NAACP, MOORE COUNTY NAACP, STOKES COUNTY BRANCH OF THE NAACP, WINSTON-SALEM-FORSYTH COUNTY NAACP, Plaintiffs,
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,  Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Loretta C. Biggs United States District Judge.
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,
well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United
States Constitution. (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.
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. (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.)
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.)
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. (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”),  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”), currently pending before the
North Carolina Court of Appeals.
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).
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)).
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).
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
State Board Defendants' Motion to
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.)
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,  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)).
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”).
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).
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