What’s the Matter with North Carolina? A Lot, Says the First Amendment

<em>Julian Bond in the GA House in 1966</em>
Julian Bond in the GA House in 1966

In Bond v. Floyd, the United States Supreme Court held that the Georgia House of Representatives’ refusal to seat a duly elected state representative because its members disagreed with his position against the Vietnam War violated the First Amendment rights of Julian Bond, a black civil rights activist, and his constituents. Fifty years after Bond was decided, Republican legislators in North Carolina are now the ones blocking statehouse doors. This time, however, they are doing it by stripping that state’s newly elected governor of the ordinary incidents of his office, namely the ability to make the types of appointments and hiring decisions enjoyed by past governors. It’s a reckless disregard for the will of the people of North Carolina, who, like Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, are protected by the First Amendment in their choice of which political views to embrace.

The First Amendment’s prohibitions on abridgment of free speech and association are the cornerstones of our democracy; these liberties protect us from totalitarianism. So when the Georgia House attempted to use the Vietnam War as a test of Julian Bond’s loyalty to his country, the Court dismissed the legislature’s conceit because “such a power could be utilized to restrict the right of legislators to dissent from national or state policy or that of a majority of their colleagues under the guise of judging their loyalty to the Constitution.”

It is immaterial that Bond was being denied his seat because of his dissent on the Vietnam War. The First Amendment prohibits most viewpoint discrimination by the government. Bond’s rights would have been no less assaulted had he been denied his seat for supporting the war or, for that matter, for merely being a Democrat.

Which brings us back to North Carolina. The Republican legislative majority is exacting partisan revenge against Cooper because he’s a Democrat who successfully assembled a coalition of voters to support his platform. Retaliating against Cooper and his supporters by stripping Cooper of the powers that his supporters elected him to exercise is tantamount to not seating a political opponent in the office to which he’s been duly elected.

It’s implausible to portray what Republicans in North Carolina are doing as an ordinary partisan disagreement. The Republicans’ orgy of vengeance turns on its head the notion that “to the victor goes the spoils”; instead, now, to the spoilers goes the victory. Theirs is the type of norm-violating conduct that epitomizes asymmetrical partisan polarization, in which the Republican Party’s giant lurch to the right largely explains Washington’s political dysfunction. Now North Carolina Republicans are home-brewing their own paralysis—but on even more vitriolic and nihilistic terms.

The First Amendment is a limit on partisan retribution. Citizens cannot by and large be denied a government job because of how they voted. Duly elected legislators cannot be denied their oaths of office because their opponents disagree with them. And voters cannot be punished for how they voted by stripping their preferred candidate of the powers of his office. A government without these safeguards is un-American.

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