The House and Senate have now overturned all three of Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes to date, the latest being a bill to draw together the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission under one banner, plus a bill that will shrink the state Court of Appeals from 15 members to 12. Both are now law.
Bill shrinking Court of Appeals becomes law
Following the override vote in the House, the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly), issued a statement saying, “Governor Cooper has a history of packing the Court of Appeals for political purposes, so it’s no surprise the House had to override his veto to streamline the judicial branch and ensure efficient use of taxpayer money.”
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 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, and now decreased, by factors of three.
Of the override vote Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said “Even though he says partisan politics has no place on the bench, the fact is Roy Cooper previously packed the Court of Appeals with Democrats – and just replaced a Republican appellate court judge elected by the voters with his handpicked Democrat replacement who was twice rejected by the voters. I am pleased this bill undoing his partisan court-packing scheme and making the court more efficient is now law.”
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.”
Legislators say that a reduced caseload in recent years, coupled with changes to the way some cases are handed so that more are sent straight to the state Supreme Court, makes it feasible to shrink the court to 12 members.
SB68 veto override
The North Carolina Senate and House also successfully voted to override Cooper’s veto of SB68 this week.
The Senate took its override vote on Monday night and the House followed suit Tuesday morning.
Both votes came down along party lines, with no Democrats supporting the veto overrides in either chamber.
The bill, now law, will pull together the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission into a new bipartisan board split evenly between the two largest political parties in the state.
The bill was passed to address the concerns of a three-judge panel that shot down an earlier piece of legislation passed last year, and signed by former Gov. Pat McCrory before he left office, that pulled the two bodies together but gave some appointment power to the legislature.
The new law keeps all of the appointments in the governor’s hands. He will chose from a list of nominees submitted by the heads of the two political parties with the highest number of registered voters in the state.
A statement from Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said, “It is ironic that Gov. Cooper lectured the legislature about pursuing ‘partisan power grabs’ when he vetoed a bill creating a bipartisan board to ensure our ethics and elections laws are enforced fairly – and for no other reason than to strengthen his own political advantage. I am confident this change – which actually answers the court’s call to let the governor make all appointments to that board – is a step in the right direction for North Carolina.”
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.”
Following Cooper’s vetoes on Friday Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) issued a joint statement responding to Cooper’s action.
“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. 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.”
Cooper challenges law forming new bipartisan elections and ethics oversight board
Berger responded Wednesday to Cooper’s motion for a temporary restraining order against SB68, attempting to stop the legislation from becoming law after veto override votes were taken in the House and Senate this week.
Berger said that the new law addresses the concerns of the three-judge panel that shot down the legislation passed last year after Cooper challenged that law as well.
“Even though the legislature disagreed with the three-judge panel’s ruling, we respected the court and fully complied with their order by ensuring the governor will make all appointments to the bipartisan ethics and elections board,” Berger said. “It is outrageous for Gov. Cooper to now ask the very same judges to block the modified board that met their requirements to the letter, simply because he wants total control of ethics and elections oversight. It would be a disgrace if these judges allowed themselves to become the governor’s political pawns and failed to respect the legislature’s constitutional authority to make laws.”
The three-judge panel had concerns with the earlier version of the law, taking contention with the division of appointments between the legislature and the governor but the new law leaves all of the appointments with the governor.
Berger said that earlier this week legislative leaders filed a motion with the same three-judge panel and another motion with the state Court of Appeals asking the court to affirm that the new law addressed their concerns and dismiss Cooper’s case regarding the new law.
The legislature already overrode Cooper’s first veto of a bill, now law, last month that returned 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, the legislature mandated that all judicial elections are now partisan.