Tuesday, March 22, 2022
When the Supreme Court hear oral arguments yesterday in Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the discussion seemingly centered around dry procedural minutiae and one of the banes of legal writing courses—the appropriate standard of review to answer the question. But the case demonstrates both the importance of those standards of review, and the way that procedural nuance can mask surprisingly broad political and policy subtexts.
The case concerns North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which the North Carolina NAACP has challenged as unconstitutional. The North Carolina attorney general, a Democrat, is defending the law, but Republican state legislators in North Carolina seek to join the lawsuit to defend the statute’s constitutionality. The legislators argue that the attorney general was not sufficiently representing their interests because he was primarily seeking clarification on which voting law to enforce—without forcefully defending the constitutionality of the new voter ID law.
Despite the seemingly mundane procedural posture of the case, the political subtext and repercussions are broad. Republicans want to see the voter ID enforced immediately, while Democrats did not support it from the outset. North Carolina’s Democratic governor initially vetoed the voter ID law, and Republican legislators passed it over his veto. Some of those same Republican legislators, now dubious that a Democratic attorney general truly seeks to uphold the voter ID law, believe they must intervene to preserve their interest in asserting that the law is constitutional.
In a twist that should draw the attention of appellate attorneys and law students, the case may turn on the deference owed to the lower court, and thus the standard of review that ought to apply. Because the lower court ruled against the Republican legislator’s effort to intervene, the Supreme Court must decide whether to follow that lower court decision. Republican legislators argue that the Court should apply de novo review, allowing the Supreme Court to consider the legal issue afresh without any deference to the lower court’s ruling. They claim that the Supreme Court should not simply review the lower court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion—meaning that the lower court’s decision was so arbitrary and capricious as to hardly be a legal ruling at all—because their decision refusing to allow intervention was purely legal, not the kind of fact-driven decision best left to lower courts. But opponents respond that the Republican legislatures seek a ruling of whether their interests are adequately represented by the state attorney general—an inherently fact-specific inquiry to be made by lower courts with a closer relationship to the parties and a better view of the facts involved.
A debate over standards of review may appear immaterial. Judges, after all, might reach whatever ruling they prefer irrespective of that standard, either by manipulating the standard they apply or by simply applying the correct standard more or less rigorously. But this case illustrates the ways in which the standard of review, when contested, can have a meaningful impact on the outcome of litigation. In many ways, it drove the direction of oral arguments, where Justices wondered how strong an interest the Republican legislators really had and whether other groups of legislators might also want to join the suit. Those questions, though framed as a legal inquiry, also contain a clear factual subtext; they require close examination of the details of every case where such intervention is a possibility. How the Court frames those questions—as either legal inquiries subject to de novo review of factual ones subject to review for an abuse of discretion—seems likely to control the outcome. The case thus provides a ready example of standards of review playing a crucial role in a case with broad political and policy implications.