Editorial: End the voting rights case appeal, stop legislative leaders' bickering
Posted February 24
A CBC Editorial: Friday, Feb. 24, 2017; Editorial# 8129
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company
A federal court dispute over the constitutionality of drastic changes in North Carolina’s voting laws has boiled over into an argument about just who represents the state before the courts – the governor or the state legislature.
And even more so – whether a new governor, who happens to be a Democrat, can decide to end a legal appeal that was initiated by his Republican predecessor.
It’s a winding, but important path. The conclusion could very well determine whether North Carolina continues to expand opportunities for voters to participate in elections or imposes restrictions that discriminate against young and African-American voters.
This past summer the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional a broad set of voter and ballot access provisions enacted in 2013. Some portions of the law were aimed at young voters while others exclusively targeted African-American voters. The law was so precise and extreme that the appeals court called it “purposeful racial discrimination.”
Initially, the law was upheld by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder – where then Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office successfully defended it.
But after the blunt rebuke by the Court of Appeals, Cooper a Democrat who was by then running for governor, announced his office had done its best, but further appeal was fruitless.
Outside counsel, already working the case with then Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-controlled legislature, would handle further appeals. McCrory appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court just before leaving office following Cooper’s win in the gubernatorial race.
That change of power is critical. It is the governor, and the State Board of Elections – an administrative agency under the governor’s authority – that are the official defendants in the lawsuit.
With the Republican governor out of the picture, now Governor Cooper announced this week that he’d be withdrawing the Supreme Court appeal and dismissing the private lawyers that represented the state – essentially ending the state’s defense of the voter law changes and leaving the Court of Appeals ruling in place.
Republican legislative leaders were predictably enraged: A “desperate and politically motivated stunt” was how state Senate boss Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore put it. “They’ve allowed their own personal and political prejudices and conflicts of interest to cloud their professional judgement.”
Thomas Farr, a lawyer for the law firm working with the General Assembly leadership, sent a letter to Cooper’s office objecting to dismissal of his firm.
“Perplexed” and “stunned” was how Farr, who’s served as counsel to Berger on voting rights and election law issues, put it. “Neither Governor Cooper nor the Attorney General has the authority to discharge us as counsel for the State and other defendants in this case. Nor does Governor Cooper or the Attorney General have the authority to ask the Supreme Court to withdraw the petition on behalf of all petitioners,” Farr said.
So, it appears we may have a front-row seat for yet another tug-of-war between the GOP leadership of the General Assembly and the new Democratic governor over just who runs the state.
But things have changed in Raleigh.
The legislature can no longer roll over the governor. Copper is an experienced former legislator and a 12-year attorney general well-versed in the law. He is standing his ground and showing quiet confidence. He is showing leadership.
Meanwhile Berger's personal attack machine spews venom and shuts down conversation about the issue. No change there.
Perhaps it will drag on for so long that the bill filed this week proposing an end to the State Constitutional ban on secession from the Union might pass. The Legislature could declare itself an independent nation and enact any laws it wanted.
You can't make this stuff up.