FILE - North Carolina voting

A series of election signs leads the way into a voting precinct in Asheville, North Carolina in 2020.

(The Center Square) – The North Carolina Court of Appeals granted a request by state lawmakers to stay a superior court ruling that changed when convicted felons regain the right to vote, freezing felon voter registrations until the case is resolved.

The stay blocks a ruling by a three-judge superior court panel last week that found "if a person otherwise eligible to vote is not in jail or prison for a felony conviction, they may lawfully register and vote in North Carolina."

The 2-1 decision overturned a 1973 law that prohibited felons from voting until their sentences are complete, including post-release probation or parole. The case impacts about 56,000 felons who have completed their time in prison.

"The motion (for a) temporary stay is allowed," Court of Appeals clerk Eugene H. Soar wrote. "The 'Final Judgement and Order' entered by a divided three-judge panel of Wake County Superior Court on 28 March 2022 is hereby stayed pending this court’s ruling on the petition for writ of supersedeas."

The case stems from a 2019 lawsuit filed by the Raleigh-based Community Success Initiative to strike down the law. The group argues that keeping people from voting upon release from prison violates the state Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and Free Elections Clause, and that the law was written with a racist intent.

Data presented by the plaintiffs illustrated the disproportional effect of the law on black residents, which account for 21 percent of the state’s voting age population and 42 percent of those denied the right to vote because of the law.

Democrat Judge Keith Gregory and Judge Lisa Bell, who is unaffiliated, agreed that the 1973 law was adopted with racist motivations, while Republican Judge John Dunlow dissented.

The stay issued Tuesday will not prevent felons from submitting voter registration applications, but states the North Carolina State Board of Elections "shall order such applications to be held and not acted on until further order" from the appeals court.

Republican lawmakers defending the law argue on appeal that "the Superior Court has issued an injunction that is plainly irreconcilable with the North Carolina Constitution" and have raised issues with the timing of the superior court ruling.

Attorneys for the defendants argued last week the three-judge panel "disrupted election procedure" by issuing its ruling just as absentee voting started and highlighted the court’s history of questionable timing. In late August, the same three-judge panel issued a verbal order allowing felons to register to vote just days before officials finalized materials for municipal elections.

They’ve also noted that the 1973 law that re-enfranchised felons to vote once they completed probation and parole was sponsored by Democrats with the backing of three black lawmakers and the NAACP.

Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, last week described the superior court ruling as "an unrivaled attempt by judges to legislate from the bench."

The stay at the Court of Appeals came a day after attorneys for the Community Success Initiative asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to take up the case.

"Plaintiffs seek discretionary review from this court given the exceptional importance and urgency of the appeal, and of legislative defendants' petition for a writ of supersedeas, which has the potential to create immense confusion before the May 2022 primary election and cause substantial and irreparable harm," Daryl Atkinson, attorney for plaintiffs, wrote in the Supreme Court filing.

Republicans contend Atkinson’s Supreme Court filing is an attempt to circumvent the appeals court, and "if granted, the case … would become the latest in a string of highly political cases where the Democratic-majority Supreme Court has sidestepped the standard judicial process."

"It's clear as day that the plaintiffs are forum shopping in an attempt to bypass the Court of Appeals and circumvent the standard judicial process," Daniel said. "It's a shame that the Democratic-majority Supreme Court seems intent on playing this game and rushing to settle political scores before the clock runs out on them in November.

"The Supreme Court is fast becoming the most political body in the state, and that should concern every citizen of this state."