Kirkland won a landmark voting rights case on July 29, 2016, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, 94-year-old civil rights icon Rosanell Eaton and numerous other North Carolina citizens and organizations when the appeals court invalidated House Bill 539, a 2013 North Carolina statute that restricted voting opportunities and burdened the right to vote for African Americans. The Fourth Circuit held that the statute, which required voters to show photo identification at the polls, eliminated same-day voter registration and student pre-registration, and shortened the early-voting period, violated both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
Kirkland, along with co-counsel from the Advancement Project, filed the first case against the law the day it was signed by the governor, contending that it was enacted with the intent to discriminate against certain minorities. Working with the U.S. Department of Justice and other private plaintiffs that followed, Kirkland developed a compelling record of intentional racial discrimination by the North Carolina legislature through discovery involving the production of more than one million pages of documents and more than 180 depositions, including of state election officials, voting experts and affected citizens.
The District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina had conducted two trials, together spanning more than four weeks and involving more than 50 live witnesses, and ultimately issued a 479-page opinion denying the plaintiffs’ claims. The Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed the district court’s decision. Evaluating the “massive” trial record, the appellate court held that it could “only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In particular, the court pointed to the “devastating” record developed at trial regarding the legislature’s actions, and concluded that “[t]he record evidence plainly establishes race as a ‘but-for’ cause” of the challenged legislation.
“The Fourth Circuit’s decision eliminates burdensome voting restrictions in North Carolina that disproportionately affect minorities and discourage voter participation,” said Kirkland litigation partner Daniel Donovan, who led the Kirkland team. “We remain dedicated to the fight for equal voting rights.”
The Fourth Circuit held that it need not remand the issue for further proceedings before the district court, but held that it was “satisfied that this record is ‘complete,’ indeed as ‘complete’ as could ever reasonably be expected, and that remand would accomplish little.” The court, therefore, invalidated the law and ordered the district court to enter an injunction against its enforcement. Within hours, the district court complied, thereby returning North Carolina’s voting and registration laws to those in effect prior to House Bill 589. On August 4, 2016, the Fourth Circuit denied the State’s motion to recall or stay the Fourth Circuit’s mandate, holding that “[v]oters disenfranchised by a law enacted with discriminatory intent suffer irreparable harm far greater than any potential harm to the State.”
Litigation partner Daniel Donovan led the Kirkland team, and was joined by fellow litigation partners Susan Davies, Bridget O’Connor, Michael Glick, Winn Allen, Jodi Wu and Thomas Yannucci, and associates Christopher Maner, Ronald Anguas, Madelyn Morris, John Song and Jennifer Basch.