RALEIGH — Laws approved by the Republican-dominated legislature that reduced powers of North Carolina’s new Democratic governor are getting challenged again — this time on arguments that the December special session in which they were approved was illegal.
Government reform group Common Cause and 10 state residents sued Wednesday in Wake County Superior Court alleging that legislative leaders violated the state Constitution when the session convened Dec. 14 after only two hours’ notice that it would occur. Republican lawmakers have said the session was called properly.
Lawmakers had quietly accumulated colleagues’ signatures to convene themselves almost immediately after another session ended that had been called by then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory for that week and in which they approved a Hurricane Matthew relief and recovery package.
By the time the second session had ended Dec. 16, GOP lawmakers had passed laws shifting control over administering elections from incoming Gov. Roy Cooper to themselves and subjecting his Cabinet to Senate confirmation.
Other laws approved under a compressed parliamentary schedule also reduced the number of employees Cooper could hire compared to McCrory, made appeals court elections officially partisan races and moved powers from the State Board of Elections to the state schools superintendent.
Cooper and others already have sued over the laws, with mixed results to date. While the elections administration changes were struck down by a three-judge panel last month, the confirmation mandate was upheld. Wednesday’s lawsuit takes a different tact by arguing rights to due process and for the people to “instruct their representatives” within the state Constitution were violated by the swift session.
“The absence of public notice coupled with wholesale changes to the legislative rules deprived North Carolina citizens of an opportunity to communicate with their representatives about the proposed legislation,” Burton Craige, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said at a news conference in front of the Legislative Building. “The process was undemocratic, unprecedented and unconstitutional.”
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said in December the session, known officially as an “extra session,” was lawful and that required signatures — three-fifths of the members in the House and Senate — were properly gathered.
“It is difficult to take seriously this baseless lawsuit questioning the validity of a special session when that session was called exactly the way our North Carolina Constitution requires, and we expect the courts will reject this hollow press stunt,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Wednesday in a release. Berger, Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Senate’s presiding officer, are defendants.
Once the new session began during Hurricane Matthew, hundreds of critics of Republican policies converged on the Legislative Building for two days of raucous protests, leading to more than 50 arrests. Anti-GOP activists already had been worried that lawmakers would use the Hurricane Matthew session to pass a law to pack the state Supreme Court with more Republican justices. That did not occur.
Despite the protests, Craige said some plaintiffs have jobs and families and need advance notice of legislative meetings so they can travel several hours to Raleigh. This didn’t happen with the extra session, he said.
“Our legislative leaders used the tragedy of a hurricane to conceal a sneak attack on the authority of a properly-elected governor,” said plaintiff Bob Morrison, a retired hospital president in Randolph County. “There was not even a pretense of proper procedure and public input.”
The state Constitution provides no definition about the proper notice of a legislative session. Craige said the legislature or governor have provided advance notice of special sessions and their purpose since 1960.