Voters falsely accused of fraud by Republican group can’t sue, NC Supreme Court rules

North Carolina voters falsely accused of voter fraud cannot sue the Republican-affiliated group that brought the claims, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a decision authored by Chief Justice Paul Newby, the court’s five Republican justices ruled that people who report suspected voter fraud should be granted “absolute privilege,” meaning immunity from defamation claims.

“The public has an interest in judicial and quasi-judicial bodies arriving at the truth,” the opinion said. “...This interest is especially strong when the quasi-judicial proceeding implicates accuracy in elections. To that end, the absolute privilege must apply broadly to anyone involved in any aspect of an election protest.”

Putting accusers on the hook for claims of defamation would mean “discouraging citizens from guarding the integrity of their elections,” the opinion said.

The two Democrats on the court, Justices Anita Earls and Allison Riggs, recused themselves since they previously represented the voters bringing the case.

The case stems from allegations of voter fraud following the 2016 gubernatorial race between Gov. Roy Cooper and former Gov. Pat McCrory.

After losing to Cooper in a close race, McCrory formed a legal defense fund, which pursued election protests against allegedly ineligible voters.

Several voters who were falsely accused of fraud, such as voting twice, sued the out-of-state lawyers associated with the fund in 2017 for defamation.

Who can be sued by voters for defamation?

Thursday’s ruling reverses a 2021 decision by the Court of Appeals, which ruled that the voters’ defamation case could continue.

The justices said that the lower court erred by accepting a legal argument put forth by the voters, which said that only direct participants in a quasi-judicial proceeding are protected by absolute privilege.

Under this interpretation of the law, the voters argued that lawyers for McCrory who helped bring the claims — but did not directly file them — could be sued for defamation.

This baseless participation requirement concocted by plaintiffs has no foundation in this Court’s jurisprudence,” Newby wrote.

During arguments in the case last month, lawyers for the voters said that legal immunity had to be earned by participants.

“A person is not simply granted an immunity willy-nilly, but has to earn that immunity in a sense by fulfilling some actual role in a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding as a party, as an attorney, a witness or a judge,” Press Millen, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said.

But justices were skeptical of that argument.

“I’m just not seeing how you can win this case without completely upending all of the case law we have,” Justice Richard Dietz said.

The case will now go back to the Court of Appeals “with instructions to further remand to the trial court for dismissal with prejudice,” according to Newby’s ruling.