Raleigh, N.C. — Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, and former Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, are competing to be North Carolina's next attorney general and met for a recent debate hosted by UNC-TV and and the Institute for Political Leadership.
Throughout the event, Stein and Newton debated the legacy of current Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is challenging Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the general election.
The two attorney general candidates highlighted their own experience and contrasted their records during the debate. Among the contrasts they drew had to do with how they voted during their service in the North Carolina state Senate.
Stein was elected four times to the state Senate before resigning this spring. Newton is finishing his third term. The pair frequently found themselves on the opposite sides of high-profile bills.
The entire debate is worth watching, but a couple of lines caught our attention here on the fact-checking desk.
One of the major flashpoints between Newton and Stein has been the defense of state laws. Cooper has, on occasion, declined to defend measures challenged in federal or state court. For example, after a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina's voter ID measure, Cooper declined to appeal the case further.
Newton has been critical of that stance, saying Cooper should do more to defend even politically controversial statutes.
"Quite simply, the vast majority of the time, there is no reason for the attorney general not to be actively involved in the defending of the laws of our state," Newton said. "For me, it's a simple question: Was the law passed in a constitutional manner?"
Stein agreed that the role of the attorney general is to defend the state, but the attorney general also should try to prevent lawmakers from enacting unconstitutional laws.
"Sen. Newton has voted for 13 separate bills that have been held to be unconstitutional by federal courts," he said.
THE QUESTION: Despite North Carolina finding itself in court an awful lot, 13 sounded like an overestimate based on the number of lawsuits we've been tracking. Did the legislature pass, and Newton vote for, 13 bills held to be unconstitutional by one court or another?
SUMMARY JUDGMENT: Republican lawmakers took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and have often faced a skeptical judiciary over the past six years. Because Stein is talking about the number of bills passed, not the number of suits filed, he is on target.
BEYOND THE NUMBERS: While Stein is correct on the number of court losses for the state, it bears pointing out that there is a qualitative, rather than just a quantitative, argument for voters to sift through. The question for those going to the polls may be less about whether the candidates can count wins and losses, but how they would approach the defense of North Carolina statutes.
Stein argued during the debate that lawmakers should take more advice from the attorney general on the front end of the legislative process. When there is a lawsuit, such as the battle over voter ID and other election laws, he said continuing the defense in the face of adverse rulings can become a waste of taxpayer money.
Newton takes a different view.
"The General Assembly represents the people of North Carolina," he said. "That's our constitutional system. Their voice, the people's voice, deserves to be represented and deserves to be defended all the way to the bitter end. It is not appropriate for the attorney general to wave the white flag in the middle of a case."
COUNTING UP THE CASES: Now for the numbers. Stein is pointing to 13 bills, all of which Newton backed and all of which have been invalidated by one court or another. While your fact-checker was skeptical the count would reach 13, it does. Here's the list:
- The 2011 budget bill stripped Planned Parenthood of state funding. A federal judge ruled against the state in 2011. Funding for the women's health provider has continued to be an issue at the General Assembly.
- Lawmakers used a midnight veto override session in 2012 to take away the North Carolina Association of Educators' ability to charge dues through payroll deductions. A state judge ruled that bill unconstitutional.
- A 2011 bill required abortion providers to show a woman an ultrasound and describe the images in detail four hours before she can have an abortion. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that law.
- Voters passed an amendment to the state constitution in 2012 banning gay marriage. Federal courts ruled that measure invalid in 2014.
- Lawmakers crafted a sweeping rewrite of state election laws in 2013. A federal appeals court found much of that law, including a voter ID provision, to be unconstitutional. This case is still on appeal, but the 4th Circuit ruling governs the 2016 elections.
- The state Supreme Court sided with Gov. Pat McCrory over lawmakers in a disagreement over who ought to control certain environmental functions, including coal ash cleanup.
- State courts ruled that a plan to have state Supreme Court justices elected in retention elections was invalid under the state constitution.
- The state Supreme Court struck down an effort to strip veteran teachers of their tenure rights this year.
- Federal courts have also struck down redistricting plans passed by lawmakers for Congress,
- the state House,
- the state Senate,
- the Wake County Board of Education
- and the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
The two Wake County plans were struck down as part of the same lawsuit, but they were passed as different bills in different years. As well, the state House and state Senate districts were thrown out in the same lawsuit but were passed as separate bills.
THE CALL: Newton and Stein offer voters different visions for how to handle the office of attorney general and how to defend the state in court. Those differences aside, Stein is right about the number of state laws Newton has backed that have been voted down. If one was inclined to quibble, you could argue that Stein runs up the score by separating out each individual redistricting bill, but he's not wrong to do so. This gets a green light on our fact-checking scale.