Court ruling throws status of ethics, elections panels into doubt

Posted March 2

This is a shot of the entrance area to the N.C. Legislative Building.

— Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger made a rare visit to the media workspace at the legislature Thursday to highlight a ruling in the legal battle between legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper.

According to Berger, R-Rockingham, the latest twist leaves the state without an Ethics Commission or a State Board of Elections while the case is pending. Officials with the affected agencies are less sure of the order's meaning.

"This agency’s attorneys were just made aware of the order from the Court of Appeals, and they are working to determine exactly what it means. We will get you more information as soon as possible. I can tell you that State Board of Elections employees in Raleigh are working hard today, as usual," said Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections.

Perry Newson, director of the State Ethics Commission, said lawyers for his office are still picking through the ruling.

"We've been told that one interpretation is it maintains the status quo," Newson said, meaning that the two board will remain separate, functioning entities for the moment.

Like the elections board, Newson said, the Ethics Commission's staff was still doing its job.

Like Newson, Cooper's office says that the order simply maintains the status quo.

"The three-judge panel, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court have all made clear their desire for the status quo to be maintained until this case is decided. We don’t believe the Court of Appeals had any intention of eliminating either the Board of Elections or Ethics Commission as that would not make sense," said Cooper spokesman Ford Porter.

This is the latest twist in a months-long dispute between lawmakers and Cooper.

In December, state lawmakers voted to eliminate the State Board of Elections and give its authority to the Ethics Commission, which would be reconstituted as the Ethics and Elections Commission.

Cooper asked a three-judge panel to stay the new law before it could take effect Jan. 1. The panel agreed, ruling that the two boards should continue to function as usual while the case is decided.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the stay in February in an unsigned order, allowing the new law to take effect. But the state Supreme Court promptly overturned the Court of Appeals ruling and reinstated the stay pending the outcome of the case.

In the latest twist, the Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in another unsigned order that the three-judge panel did not have the authority to resurrect the two original boards after lawmakers had dissolved them. So, although the law creating the new board is on hold, the old boards don't legally exist in the interim.

Any actual effect of the ruling is likely to be mostly theoretical in the near term. Lawyers for the Cooper administration can appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which could reinstate the two boards.

In the meantime, unless some immediate action by either board is needed, their administrative functions could continue as usual. It would only be in the case of an official vote or other act that the boards' legal status would come in play.

Arguments in the lawsuit, which also challenges the new Senate confirmation process for Cooper's cabinet nominees, are scheduled to begin next Tuesday at Campbell University's Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law in Raleigh.

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  • James Daniels Mar 4, 2017
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    The problem for the GOP is that state law gives a majority of all elections boards to the governors party. So, all those decisions to limit voting rights, shorten times for voting, etc. are now gone. The next election for state legislature and congressional elections will be with redrawn maps approved by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the GOP will lose seats in the legislature and in Congress. Berger is the epitome of "Boss Hogg" with a beard. Wait, that might be an insult to "Boss Hogg."