Court ruling creates uncertainty for ethics/elections panel

Posted February 10

N.C. State Ethics Commission

— A North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling has created uncertainty for the state's ethics and elections apparatus.

The ruling late Thursday is the latest twist in a legal tug-of-war between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who took office Jan. 1, and Republican legislative leaders, who used a December special session to pass two packages of reforms limiting the new governor's powers.

One of those bills scrapped the State Board of Elections and merged its duties with the state Ethics Commission. It put the newly combined panel under the state's existing Ethics Commission until this summer.

A Superior Court panel stayed that merger until Cooper's lawsuit challenging the new arrangement could be heard.

But the Court of Appeals on Thursday stayed that lower court order, allowing the merger to go forward. Lawyers for Cooper have appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, which lawyers on all sides of the case hope will act Friday.

However, the court had not stepped in by Friday at 9 a.m. when the Ethics Commission was scheduled to meet, prompting the body to take a two hour recess in hopes of getting some word.

"The nature of this board is rather unsettled at this point," Commission Chairman John Branch said Friday morning.

When no ruling from the Supreme Court was forthcoming, the panel met as the new Elections and Ethics Board and held a two-hour closed session to get advice from their lawyers. Shortly after 1 p.m., the board ended its meeting without taking up any of the work that had been scheduled for that day.

The board has some breathing room. Neither the elections or ethics panels face any upcoming deadline and there are few, if any, contentious cases pending on either front.

Branch acknowledged after the meeting its possible that a subsequent Supreme Court order could once again change the board's role.

"That decision is out of our hands," he said.

Until something like that happens, he said, the panel will begin setting up a meeting schedule to handle its new role.


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