Those who helped file voting fraud allegations are protected from suit, North Carolina justices say

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday threw out a defamation lawsuit against attorneys who assisted voters with submitting some 2016 ballot complaints, saying the fraud allegations they helped make were broadly protected within the protest process.

The 5-0 ruling overturns the decision of a lower appeals court that determined only those actively participating in the process were shielded from liability. It's also a court victory for a legal defense fund for then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's campaign, which also was sued.

Four registered voters had sued in 2017 for libel and for damages, saying they were wrongly accused of voter fraud by pro-McCrory forces just after the close election that was ultimately won by Democrat Roy Cooper.

The allegations made by two registered voters with the help of the law firm hired by the McCrory defense fund were quickly dismissed or withdrawn. The attorneys for the accused voters said that without successful civil action, political operatives could make such allegations and defame legal voters without consequence.

But Chief Justice Paul Newby, writing the court's opinion, said that all of the defendants were entitled to “absolute privilege” from such claims. The protests before the county election boards are quasi-judicial proceedings, he said, and the statements made in the case were relevant to the matters at hand.

Such protections are needed during fast-paced protest proceedings where “mistakes will be made, and the evidence will not always confirm election protestors’ suspicions,” Newby wrote.

“People must be able to communicate freely, uninhibited by the fear of retribution in the form of a defamation suit,” Newby said. “With these principles in mind, we hold that all defendants in this case are shielded by the absolute privilege,” Newby said.

The election protest petitions in Guilford and Brunswick counties declared voting irregularities had occurred and alleged the plaintiffs also had voted in other states.

The case went to the Supreme Court after a state Court of Appeals panel ruled in 2021 that while Republican official William Porter, who filed the Guilford protest, had the absolute privilege, the other defendants — law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky and the Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund among them — did not because they failed to effectively participate.

Newby said the participation requirement argued by the plaintiffs' attorneys “has no foundation in this Court’s jurisprudence.” He reversed the Court of Appeals decision and said the trial court must dismiss the lawsuit.

Press Millen, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said later Thursday that that participant requirement is found in the defamation laws of other states. Millen said the “out-of-state political operatives” in the case "were no more participating in the protest proceedings than an unruly fan who runs onto the field is a participant in a football game.”

An attorney for the law firm defendants didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Bob Hunter, who represents the committee’s legal defense fund, said it was pleased with the outcome: “We thought the court ruling reflected what the law was all along."

The state Supreme Court has seven justices, but only the five registered Republicans on the court heard the case in oral arguments last month. Democratic Associate Justices Anita Earls and Allison Riggs recused themselves for previously representing the plaintiffs.

One of the plaintiffs died last year. The three remaining plaintiffs — Louis Bouvier Jr., Joseph Golden, and Samuel Niehans — decried Thursday's ruling.

In a statement, they said the justices' decision means “we can be falsely accused of wrongdoing, paraded around as the poster children for fraudulent voting, and have our reputations damaged and degraded, and there is nothing we can do to stop it or prevent it from happening to anyone else."

Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press