RALEIGH, N.C. (AP/WNCN) — North Carolina’s Supreme Court is deciding whether people convicted of felonies should be allowed to vote if they aren’t serving prison time but are on probation or parole or have to yet pay fines.

The justices heard oral arguments Thursday in a lawsuit filed by several civil rights groups and ex-offenders in 2019. 

By last year, a panel of trial judges agreed with the plaintiffs that a law laying out when felony offenders get voting rights restored violated the state constitution and disproportionately harmed Black residents. These and other judges’ decisions affected roughly 56,000 people. 

The law was approved in the early 1970s. Current legislative leaders defending the law say it treats all felony offenders the same and sets a bright line for voting once all punishments are completed. 

This week marks the first in which the Supreme Court has heard arguments since Republicans took a majority of seats after the November elections. 

Pete Patterson, an attorney representing the Republican leaders of the General Assembly, said it should have been up to the legislature to make changes to the law.  

“Felons do not have a fundamental right to vote. The state constitution expressly says that they are disenfranchised unless and until they are re-enfranchised in the manner prescribed by law,” he said. “This court would be creating tension if it said that felons have a fundamental right to vote because there is a provision of the constitution that says explicitly that they do not.” 

Stanton Jones, an attorney representing groups that originally filed the lawsuit, said the trend in the legislature over the last 50 years has been to expand the restoration of voting rights, and that the lower court made the right decision in the case. 

“Article VI, Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution does not give the General Assembly a special license to discriminate against African-Americans,” he said. “What the trial court found is that that was designed intentionally to discriminate against African-Americans living in the community.” 

While questioning Jones, Justice Richard Dietz, a Republican, said, “In North Carolina, we don’t try to get into the minds of legislators. We declare something unconstitutional and then tell that other branch of government you need to try again.” 

Anton Sluder, who lives in Asheville, is among the people who got the right to vote last year as a result of the case.  

He served time for a felony drug charge and now works as a peer support specialist for the state of North Carolina.  

“I’m not perfect. And, I messed up once and I got in the judicial system, and I’ve been labeled since,” he said. 

When he learned he would be able to vote in last year’s election, he said he “felt equal” and is concerned he could lose that right again depending on the outcome of the case. 

“I can be seen as who I am now, not who I was before,” he said. “I believe everyone if they’re alive and breathing, they can change and they deserve a chance. But, somebody has to give us this chance.”