Cooper vetoes court, elections bills

Posted April 21, 2017 12:14 p.m. EDT

Gov. Roy Cooper holds a Feb. 14, 2017, news conference to announce a proposal to repeal a state law limiting LGBT rights.

— Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday issued the second and third vetoes of his administration, rejecting bills that would cut the size of the state Court of Appeals and would combine the state boards that oversee elections and ethics complaints.

Lawmakers last week approved legislation that would reduce the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12 in the next couple of years as three older judges hit the mandatory retirement age. Normally, Cooper would be able to name replacements to serve out the remainder of the judges' terms.

"Having three fewer judges will increase the court’s workload and delay timely appeals," Cooper said in a statement. "Just as bad is the real motivation of Republican legislators, which is to stack the court with judges of their own party. Earlier this session, Republican legislators already injected partisan politics into our courts by slapping political party labels on all judicial races."

Supporters of the smaller appellate court say the court's workload has dropped in recent years, but opponents, including a bipartisan group of former state Supreme Court chief justices, have said the proposal would harm the state's judicial system. They note no one in the judicial branch asked for the change, and there's been no study to gauge its possible impact.

Lawmakers last week also passed a bill that would merge the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission into an eight-person board evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. A three-judge panel last month threw out an earlier attempt to combine the two panels into a single oversight board, ruling lawmakers had overstepped their authority, so the new legislation was tweaked to address those concerns.

"This is the same unconstitutional legislation in another package, and it’s an attempt to make it harder for people to register and vote," Cooper said.

The state and county elections boards have traditionally given a one-person majority to the party of the governor, and Cooper noted the even split on all the boards would likely result in deadlocks over issues such as early voting times and locations.

"I urge legislators to set the right priorities for North Carolina and stop electoral manipulation, which, like gerrymandering, is what’s wrong with politics," he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said Cooper's positions were politically motivated.

"North Carolinians deserve a bipartisan ethics and elections board with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to govern without partisan motivations, but Roy Cooper wants to rig the system for his own benefit, just like when he packed the Court of Appeals with Democrats while serving in the legislature," Berger and Moore said in a joint statement. "We have complied with the court’s order and restored the governor’s ability to make all appointments to that board, yet he is still fighting measures to increase bipartisan cooperation and undo his court-packing scheme for no other reason than to preserve his own partisan advantage."

The reference to a "court-packing scheme" refers to the Democratic-controlled legislature's move in the late 1990s to expand the Court of Appeals from 12 to 15 judges, which allowed then-Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, to name the three new judges. Cooper was a state senator at the time. But opponents to the legislation returning the court to 12 judges note that judicial officials asked for the expansion at the time because of a growing workload.

Lawmakers easily overrode Cooper's first veto last month, restoring partisan elections in trial court races statewide.