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Judge says NC lawmakers can't ignore subpoenas

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

A federal trial judge declined Thursday to side with North Carolina lawmakers who believe they are not required to provide documents to groups seeking answers about how a disputed elections-overhaul law was passed.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder upheld the March decision of a magistrate judge who told General Assembly members they didn't have absolute immunity from responding to subpoenas seeking such information.

Schroeder's decision provides another incremental court victory to the U.S. government, several advocacy groups, and voters who filed lawsuits to block provisions of the 2013 law. The plaintiffs argue that a reduction in the number of early voting days, the elimination of same-day registration during early voting, and a requirement for photo identification that will go into effect in 2016 are discriminatory and erode voting rights.

"This decision will help the court get a fuller picture of why the voting changes at stake are so detrimental to North Carolina voters," Allison Riggs, an attorney representing the League of Women Voters of North Carolina in the lawsuits, said in a news release.

It's unclear if the ruling will be appealed. The state Attorney General's Office will review the ruling and consult with clients, AG spokeswoman Noelle Talley said. Defendants include the state, the State Board of Elections and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the bill into law last August.

While the law provides state legislators broad immunity from lawsuits and protections from testifying about legislative actions, Schroeder wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on how it applies to document requests.

"As with other privileges, the court cannot say that it is absolute," he wrote. "It follows, therefore, that the court cannot say that the magistrate judge's order is contrary to law."

Schroeder set new deadlines for later this month for attorneys for both sides to work out what should be disclosed or withheld and present disagreements to Magistrate Judge Joi Peake. Her earlier orders had been stayed pending Schroeder's review.

The plaintiffs are collecting documents as they prepare to ask Schroeder in July to issue a preliminary injunction blocking provisions of the law during the November elections, while the lawsuit is ongoing. A trial isn't expected until 2015. The early-voting changes applied to primary elections held last week.

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