Private lawyers to join AG in defense of magistrate opt-out

Posted February 5, 2016

A Wake County magistrate marries a same-sex couple after a federal court ruling overturned North Carolina's constitutional prohibition against gay marriage.

— Saying they don't believe Attorney General Roy Cooper's heart is in it, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Friday they want to hire their own lawyers to defend a court challenge to the North Carolina law that allows magistrates to stop performing marriages for religious reasons.

Three couples filed a federal lawsuit in October, hoping to overturn Senate Bill 2, which allows magistrates and register of deeds office staffers who object to same-sex marriage to refuse to perform any marriages for six months. The General Assembly passed the law in June over Gov. Pat McCrory's veto.

Supporters say the law protects the religious rights of magistrates and county employees, but critics say it allows public servants to decide which of their job duties to perform and for which taxpayers to perform them.

Cooper's office has already represented the state in defending the lawsuit, including filing a motion Friday to have it dismissed. But Moore, R-Cleveland, and Berger, R-Rockingham, noted that Cooper, a Democrat who is running for governor, has publicly criticized the law and said he, too, would have vetoed it.

"Once again, Roy Cooper is publicly disparaging the case of his clients – the people of North Carolina – and instead arguing the opposition’s case for them," Berger and Moore said in a statement. "Nobody in North Carolina would accept this behavior from his or her private lawyer, and the taxpayers should not have to in this case."

The lawsuit is the latest case where legislators are bringing in outside counsel to either replace or complement the efforts of the Attorney General's Office. Others include challenges to school vouchers, redrawn voting districts and changes to election laws.

Since Republicans took the helm of the North Carolina legislature in 2011, financial data show state lawmakers have racked up almost $7 million in legal bills through October 2015. That is about 17 times the total amount for the preceding 10 years.

"It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars for legislators to pay outside lawyers to do the work our attorneys are already doing defending the state in this case," Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said in an email to WRAL News. "Our lawyers always work diligently to carry out this responsibility, regardless of their or anyone’s personal views about the particular issue."


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