Both Cooper And GOP Get Partial Wins From Three-Judge Panel

Mar 20, 2017

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC

Three Wake County Superior Court Judges have issued mixed rulings in the power struggle between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.

The three-judge panel threw out a new law limiting Cooper's authority in carrying out elections. But a majority of the panel also upheld the new law subjecting Cooper's cabinet secretaries to Senate confirmation.

Three department heads have been approved unanimously since last week.

"We're pleased the trial court ruled two of these three laws unconstitutional, and we believe strongly that the Supreme Court ultimately will agree with us on all three," said Cooper's deputy communications director, Noelle Talley, in a prepared statement.

The office of Senate Leader Phil Berger saw things differently, calling it "disappointing that two judges awarded Gov. Cooper – who has made several ethically questionable decisions recently – total control of the ethics oversight of elected officials, instead of upholding a bipartisan board that North Carolinians can trust to settle ethics decisions and election outcomes fairly," in a prepared statement.

According to the Associated Press, the judicial panel threw out laws approved two weeks before Cooper took office that limit his authority in carrying out elections and that give civil service job protections to hundreds of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's political appointees.

But a majority of the three judges also upheld the new law subjecting Cooper's Cabinet secretaries to formal confirmation by a majority of the state Senate. The judges already had declined earlier to halt confirmation activity by Senate Republicans, and three department heads have been approved unanimously since last week.

The rulings by the panel of trial court judges, which followed oral arguments last week, could be appealed.

The litigation exemplifies the power struggle between Cooper — who narrowly defeated McCrory after a campaign blasting the GOP agenda for the past four years — and the legislature, where Republicans hold veto-proof majorities. Legislative leaders already have sued over Cooper's attempts to expand Medicaid and are advancing bills that would remove his ability to fill judicial vacancies.

Attorneys for Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger argued that the state Constitution gave the General Assembly prominence over the governor and the courts. They said judges should not get involved in the political dogfight flowing from Cooper's November election and the legislature's actions in December.

But Cooper's attorneys said the laws should be invalidated because they skew the balance of power and make it difficult for a governor to carry out his duty to execute state laws.