North Carolina leaders spar in court over election change

AP News
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Posted: Apr 28, 2017 3:05 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Three North Carolina judges were asked Friday to decide whether Republican state lawmakers acted within their constitutional powers when they voted for a second time to curtail the new Democratic governor's control over state and local elections.

It's the latest battle over the GOP-dominated General Assembly's efforts to reduce or check Gov. Roy Cooper's powers. The fight began in December within days after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory conceded a narrow loss to Cooper. GOP legislators quickly passed a law diluting the ability governors have had for more than a century to pick election board majorities.

The same panel of judges decided earlier that the December law violated the state constitution's separation of powers. So Republicans passed an updated measure to address some of the panel's objections. Lawmakers this week overrode Cooper's veto of the amended law and Cooper sued.

The chief lawyer for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger dispensed quickly with debates over whether the changes focused on improving governance.

The dispute is "a partisan political battle masquerading as a separation of powers case," attorney Noah Huffstetler said, urging the judges not to intervene. "The governor's action in seeking to block ... the statute before you today makes it absolutely clear that is the case."

The previous and current versions of the elections board revamp take away Cooper's authority to pick the majority of the five-member statewide elections board and the three-member boards in all 100 counties. GOP legislators now want to divide the elections boards equally between Democrats and Republicans. The revised version lets Cooper pick elections board members from lists of candidates compiled by the two major parties.

But a Republican would head the decision-making state board in presidential election years when most people vote and ballot disputes are hottest. The current Republican executive with day-to-day control couldn't be replaced for at least two years, perhaps indefinitely if the board devolves into partisan deadlocks as the Federal Elections Commission has done for years, Cooper attorney Jim Phillips Jr. said.

GOP lawmakers said since Cooper ultimately picks elections board members — though only from the candidates the parties offer — the law respects the state constitution's separation of powers requirement and the judicial panel's previous ruling.

No so, Phillips said.

The changes contradict a state Supreme Court ruling last year that found GOP legislative leaders usurped McCrory's executive powers by planning to appoint most members to new environmental regulatory commissions, he said. The revised law likewise undercuts Cooper's duty to execute laws by taking away his ability to select, supervise and replace the new, bipartisan elections board, Phillips said.

"The goal is the same — to deprive the governor of control necessary for him to ensure that this executive branch board... faithfully executes the state's election laws," Phillips said.

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