Senate committee subpoenas cabinet secretary to testify at confirmation hearing
Posted February 23
Raleigh, N.C. — After the witness chair for Secretary Larry Hall's confirmation hearing sat empty for the third meeting in a row, the state Senate Commerce Committee voted along party lines Thursday to subpoena Gov. Roy Cooper's pick to head the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to appear next week.
Legislative subpoenas are rare; most sessions go by without a committee issuing one. This unusual move is the latest in a power struggle between lawmakers and Cooper over whether the legislature should get to sign off on whom the governor appoints to key positions.
"I don't know why we can't get someone here to talk to us," said Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, who voted for the subpoena. "I doubt he's got anything to hide. Why doesn't he just come over and talk to us?"
Under the subpoena the committee voted to issue, Hall has been called to testify on March 2.
Cooper's office did not answer a question about whether Hall would comply with the subpoena or seek to have it quashed. The governor did issue a statement reiterating that he believes lawmakers are acting too hastily.
"Larry Hall is a Marine Corps veteran and longtime legislator who brings a wealth of experience to his work as secretary for Military and Veterans Affairs," Cooper spokesman Jamal Little said. "It's disappointing that this committee, which has ignored the findings of a court order by meeting prematurely, would engage in this political charade when there's so much to focus on repealing HB2 and raising teacher pay. We look forward to the March 7 (court) hearing on the constitutionality of this unprecedented process."
The dispute between Cooper, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, and Republican legislative leaders stems from a set of laws passed in December. Among the provisions in one of those bills is a requirement that Cooper's cabinet picks submit themselves to a confirmation process similar to the scrutiny presidential cabinet nominees face before the U.S. Senate.
Cooper has sued to overturn that law, and a trial on the matter is expected in early March. However, the court has turned down a request to block proceedings until that trial. Rather, in a court order, the three-judge panel said the governor hadn't suffered any harm, so he had asked for the injunction too soon. But in the same order, the three-judge panel seems to point to provisions in the law that could be read as giving Cooper until May 15 to make his nominations.
Senate Republicans dispute that notion, saying both the law and the state constitution give them the ability to move forward.
"The governor cannot say with a straight face he has not nominated Secretary Hall," Sen. Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, said.
Meredith ticked off a list of indications that Hall was serving in the job, including his name being listed on the state's website, his salary being published and his appearance at several public meetings as secretary.
That apparent ambiguity in both the law and the court order was the focus of a tense Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, with Democrats questioning whether issuing a subpoena would fly in the face of the court's direction. Specifically, the court order indicates Cooper would have to make a formal nomination before proceedings could begin.
"How is this not a violation of the court order?" asked Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton.
Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, pointed out that the order in question denied an injunction, and at several points during the meeting, he repeated the Senate's case that, since Hall was serving in the job, it only made sense for the Senate to proceed with a confirmation.
"We are able to proceed with confirmation of vacancy appointments at any time," Bishop said.
Other Democrats suggested it might make sense to wait until the court weighs in on the process in March.
"We should respect the court orders that have been entered while this plays out in court," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, saying that lawmakers should be focused elsewhere.
That prompted Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, to respond, "I'd like to be discussing a lot of other things, too. We could have been done with this two weeks ago if someone had just showed up."
Hise voiced his support for "stronger" action from the committee, such as voting to reject Hall altogether.
"We have reached a point where the executive branch is challenging the constitutional authority of the General Assembly and, specifically, the Senate," he said.