The first would have reduced the size of the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12 and the second would have pulled together the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission under one banner, an effort that was shot down in the courts earlier this year after former Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation combining the two in his final weeks in office in 2016.
Along with his vetoes Cooper released two statements giving his reasons for shooting the bills down.
In reference to HB239 Cooper said, “Having three fewer judges will increase the court’s workload and delay timely appeals. 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. A bipartisan group of former state Supreme Court chief justices said that this bill would ‘seriously harm our judicial system’ and ‘hurt the people of our state.’ In addition, I believe this legislation is unconstitutional, and we should all be concerned about unwarranted attacks on the judiciary.”
Under the bill, the seats of the next three judges to leave the bench, apart from those who do not seek re-election, would not be filled with a new judge. Over time this would bring the court to 12 members, as it was before the court was last expanded in 2000.
The bill, passed in party-line votes in both the House and Senate, would also send some cases directly to the state Supreme Court, such as those involving the termination of parental rights.
The Court of Appeals was originally formed in 1967 as a six-member court but was increased to nine members in 1969 and was then increased again to 12 members in 1977 and remained that way for 23 years, until it was again increased to its current size of 15 in 2000. Democrats dominated NC government throughout that span.
The court usually meets in panels of three judges, which is why the court has always been increased, or now possibly decreased, by factors of three seats.
The legislature has already overridden Cooper’s first veto of a bill, now law, to return partisan labels to all judicial election in the state.
Already Supreme Court races were partisan under a change made by Republicans and by adding superior and district courts to that in HB100 all judicial elections are now partisan.
The other bill Cooper vetoed on Friday was meant to address the court’s objections over how Republicans combined the bodies controlling elections and ethics concerns in the state under one body. Cooper called the latest plan an unconstitutional “attempt to make it harder for people to register and vote.”
In a statement he said, “This is the same unconstitutional legislation in another package, and it’s an attempt to make it harder for people to register and vote. Changing the State Board of Elections to a 4-4 partisan split and local county board of elections to a 2-2 partisan split will result in deadlocked votes. It’s a scheme to ensure that Republicans control state and county boards of elections in Presidential election years when the most races are on the ballot. The North Carolina Republican Party has a track record of trying to influence Board of Elections members to make it harder for people to vote and have fair elections. Under this bill, that same party controls the pool of appointments of half the state and county elections boards. I urge legislators to set the right priorities for North Carolina and stop electoral manipulation, which, like gerrymandering, is what’s wrong with politics.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) issued a joint statement responding to Cooper’s vetoes on Friday.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
Of the bill to reduce the size of the Court of Appeals Republican leaders have said that the reduction in size is in response to a reduced caseload and the reduction in responsibilities of the court included in the bill.
Vetoes by past governors
Gov. Cooper has a head start on his predecessor McCrory, who vetoed three bills across his entire first biennium, totaling six across his one term as governor.
But looking back to former Gov. Bev Perdue’s term as governor, who was also a one-term governor, she vetoed a total of 20 bills, one in her first biennium and then another 19 after Republicans took the Senate and House following the 2010 midterm elections.
The legislature successfully overrode 11 of Perdue’s vetoes out of 13 override votes. Of McCrory’s six vetoes the legislature challenged his veto four times, and was successful in all four override attempts.