Judges uphold law diminishing governor’s elections role

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina judges sided Thursday with Republican legislators who stripped down the election oversight authorities of the state’s new Democratic governor.

A three-judge panel unanimously dismissed a lawsuit by Gov. Roy Cooper, who challenged the law as unconstitutional. The judges offered no reasons for their decision, issued within hours of hearing lawyers for Cooper and the Republican-dominated General Assembly argue about the law.

The lawsuit that is part of the ongoing political battle that began after Cooper narrowly beat incumbent GOP Gov. Pat McCrory last year. GOP lawmakers have sought to defang Cooper’s powers ever since. Cooper plans to appeal the ruling, said his spokesman, Ford Porter.

For more than a century, state and county election boards have had an odd number of members, with the majority belonging to the governor’s political party. The General Assembly tried to alter the law in December, two weeks before Cooper took office. But the elections revamp was blocked by the same judicial panel that heard Thursday’s challenge. Lawmakers passed a revised version over Cooper’s veto in April and the governor sued.

Cooper’s ability to carry out his duty to faithfully execute election laws was crippled because the law takes away his ability to appoint, manage and replace state elections officials. That violates the constitution’s separation of powers, Cooper attorney Jim Phillips Jr. said.

The new law is designed to give Republicans an advantage in even-numbered years when national and statewide contests bring out the most voters, encourage deadlock on election disputes, and mandates that the Republican elections executive managing day-to-day issues stay in her job for years, Phillips said.

“The governor does not have sufficient control to see that the laws are faithfully executed. He has to be able to appoint a majority that shares his priorities and policies,” he said.

Attorneys for state legislative leaders said Cooper may not like having his powers reduced, but earlier Republican governors elected in the 1970s and 1980s saw their election oversight powers diminished by legislatures when Democrats were in the majority. Despite the political friction, elections were held without disruption in those politically charged years, showing balloting doesn’t depend on leaving control with the governor’s party, attorney Noah Huffstetler said.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said later Thursday in a release the judges gave “a victory to North Carolina voters” and that Cooper “should abandon his taxpayer-funded pursuit of total control of the board” that regulates his own conduct. The regulators also monitor other elected officials.

Cooper’s track record in fighting Republican lawmakers in court: He won the first round on the elections oversight restructuring. He lost on a law subjecting his agency heads to legislative confirmation, but successfully blocked Republican laws giving civil service job protections to McCrory’s political appointees.

Cooper filed his latest lawsuit Friday, arguing lawmakers unconstitutionally sought to erode his powers by stripping his authority to appoint appeals court judges and by stuffing Republican partisans into the state bureaucracy. Cooper also wants voided a law that gave the wife of McCrory’s chief of staff a nearly 8½-year term paying more than $125,000 a year on the state’s Industrial Commission, a quasi-judicial panel that rules in workers’ compensation cases.

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