RALEIGH — North Carolina’s highest court on Monday tackled the question of how far the Republican-led legislature can go to minimize new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s ability to pursue goals that helped him get elected last year by reshaping state government.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by Cooper that claims legislators violated North Carolina’s constitution this spring by passing a law diminishing the governor’s role in managing elections.
It’s the first time the high court has waded into the ongoing political battle between lawmakers and Cooper that began after he narrowly beat incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last November. GOP lawmakers have sought to diminish Cooper’s powers ever since.
The governor’s lawyers told the seven-member court that the General Assembly violated the constitution’s separation of powers requirement by reshaping the state elections board in ways that entrench Republican advantage. Elections boards are examples of the types of bodies that implement laws, functions that the state constitution requires from governors.
“Given the governor’s ultimate responsibility as the state’s chief executive, the governor must be able to appoint people in those agencies who share his views and priorities,” attorney Jim Phillips Jr. said. “The governor must be able to exert control over the executive policy implemented by those commissions.”
For example, Cooper campaigned for election last year arguing that the state should expand the ability of people to vote, Phillips said. Elections boards decide whether to expand polling hours or the number of Saturdays on which people could cast ballots, and they likely wouldn’t do that unless Cooper could appoint people who shared his views and priorities, Phillips said.
Cooper’s lawyers are relying heavily on a case the Supreme Court decided last year, ruling that legislators had cut into a governor’s powers by appointing most of the members of a state environmental commission. The governors suing in that case were Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and two of his predecessors — Democrat Jim Hunt and Republican Jim Martin.
Attorneys for state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger told the justices that lawmakers have always had the power to reshape state agencies like the elections board or how they operate, attorney Noah Huffstetler said.
“The General Assembly has always been the predominant power in state government,” Huffstetler said. “The governor wants to substitute for the legislative intent his own views and priorities, which may be vastly different than those of the people who enacted the laws.”
The law challenged by Cooper’s lawsuit converts the State Board of Elections and all 100 county elections boards from having a majority of Democrats on panels with odd numbers of members to having boards with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. The law also prevents the state’s top elections executive, a Republican, from being removed from her job for years. It also directs a Republican to be the chairman of the new elections board with broader scope in even-numbered years, when national and statewide contests generate the most voter interest.
County elections boards handle such things as voter registration and location of polling places. Disagreements that can’t be settled locally are decided by the state board, which also investigates claims of voter fraud and enforces campaign finance laws.