North Carolina GOP's careful plan could be in jeopardy

AP News
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Posted: Apr 23, 2016 11:10 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A decade ago, GOP leaders developed a strategy to take over North Carolina's state government for the first time since 1870: Aggressively pursue the seats of vulnerable Democratic lawmakers and win House and Senate majorities by 2010; use those majorities to redistrict the state in Republicans' favor; and push a business-friendly, socially conservative agenda in a Southern state where progressive policies once held sway.

The formula worked. With both houses and the governor's office under their control, Republicans can do what they want in Raleigh.

But now, as lawmakers prepare to enter their annual legislative session Monday, the courts, and possibly the court of public opinion, are threatening to imperil the Republicans' right-leaning agenda.

At least seven Republican-backed laws have been partially or fully overturned by state and federal courts since 2011, including three since September alone, even as millions in taxpayer funds have been spent defending them. Other laws are still being challenged in court.

And now the Republicans may face their biggest test with House Bill 2, approved during a one-day special session last month. The law limits LGBT anti-discrimination rules by state and local governments. It also says that in public schools, universities and government buildings, transgender people must use the restrooms and locker rooms of their gender at birth.

The law has drawn criticism nationwide from equality advocates, corporate executives, movie stars and musicians like rock star Bruce Springsteen, who canceled a concert in protest. Civil liberties groups and transgender plaintiffs are suing to overturn it.

A federal appeals court ruling this past week in a separate lawsuit would, if allowed to stand, prove fatal to a key portion of North Carolina's law. It says a Virginia high school discriminated against a transgender teen by forbidding him from using the boys' restroom.

The Virginia ruling will add to the tremendous outside pressure to repeal the law. Public protests are expected on opening day.

"We have gotten up and told them on the House floor and in private that if they proceeded with their radical agenda, it would get challenged in the courts and it would probably be overturned in the courts," said Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh, a Democratic party leader.

But the opposition appears only to have stiffened the GOP's resolve.

Although the Virginia "decision is troubling, it is not the last word on this issue — it's not even the last word on that case," said Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden. He added he doesn't see a need to repeal or revisit the bill under his Senate watch.

"Let me be clear: My job is not to give in to the demands of multi-millionaire celebrities pushing a pet social agenda," or liberal newspapers and big corporations, Berger told reporters. "My job is to listen to the people that elected us to represent them, and the vast majority of North Carolinians we've heard from understand and support this reasonable commonsense law."

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore also backs the law.

Supporters of the law, who plan their own rally on opening day, say it was needed to block a pending Charlotte ordinance that they argue would have made it easier for sexual predators to enter women's rest rooms. Gay rights groups say those problems are unsubstantiated. The law also prevents local governments from passing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at hotels and restaurants.

Courts earlier struck down GOP laws requiring abortion providers to show and describe an ultrasound to a pregnant woman; eliminating funds for Planned Parenthood affiliates; and preventing teachers who are members of the state's National Education Association affiliate from having dues taken out of their paychecks.

"Most everything that they're dealing with are hot-button issues, and hot-button political issues that have been translated into some sort of law probably have a greater likelihood of being struck down," said Bob Orr, an ex-state Supreme Court justice and former Republican gubernatorial candidate. He's represented education groups who sued to overturn GOP laws.

GOP legislators also have won some court fights. The state Supreme Court narrowly upheld taxpayer-funded grants for private and religious school students.

"We've been right in some. We've lost in some," said GOP Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County. While some legislation probably should have been handled differently, Torbett said, he also blamed some rulings on plaintiffs picking courts where they believed they would find a friendly judge.

But some recent legal defeats also have come from the pens of conservative jurists.

The North Carolina state Supreme Court unanimously blocked a Republican law that retroactively removed tenure rights of veteran teachers. A majority of state justices also ruled legislative leaders unconstitutionally usurped Gov. Pat McCrory's powers when they chose most appointments on a commission overseeing cleanup of coal ash pits.

The most worrisome ruling for Republicans may have come in February, when a panel of federal judges struck down some congressional districts as illegal racial gerrymanders. Voters who sued said two majority-black districts made adjoining districts more white and Republican. Legislators were forced to redraw the lines and delay the primary until June.

Now Republicans await a ruling after a federal trial this month that challenged General Assembly districts with the same arguments as the congressional case. An unfavorable decision ultimately could cost Republicans some elections — and jeopardize their plan.