Court considers Senate confirmations

A three judge panel has taken arguments under advisement as legislature attempts hearings as scheduled, appointee a no-show

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal

RALEIGH — At a hearing Friday, the N.C. Superior Court heard more arguments on the issue of the state Senate’s authority to hold confirmation hearings for governors’ secretarial appointments. Lawyers exchanged constitutional checks-and-balances reasoning in front of a three-judge panel that took the arguments under advisement and will make a decision at a later time.Attorneys for Gov. Roy Cooper are seeking a preliminary injunction until March 7 and argued that cabinet choices being subject to Senate confirmation hearings would have a chilling effect and limit one of the governor’s most important powers. Cooper attorney Jim Phillips argued further that the appointment authority was an important part of the separation of powers.Lawyers representing legislative leaders argued the General Assembly was not violating statutes by holding hearings before appointees were formally submitted and that public vetting is simply good policy backed by constitutionally granted powers of advice and consent.The judges acknowledged that if the injunction were issued it would not prevent the legislature from holding hearings, instead making any confirmation votes null and void.A temporary restraining order announced by the court Wednesday blocked a law passed in late 2017 that codifies the Senate’s role in confirming the governor’s cabinet appointments. The news elicited strong reactions from Republican leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly, who called the derided the three judges for legislating from the bench.”In a gross misreading of the Constitution and a blatant overstep of their Constitutional authority, three Superior Court judges attempted to dictate to the legislature when it could or could not hold committee meetings and what it could or could not consider in those meetings,” stated the letter from lawmakers.At a hearing Tuesday, the judges heard Cooper attorneys argue that the confirmation process equated to essential veto powers of the governor’s cabinet choices, while lawyers for Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger argued that the authority to provide advice and consent is specifically delegated in the state constitution and does not interfere with the governor’s ability to nominate, supervise, or control his appointments.A Senate committee meeting to consider former Democratic lawmaker Larry Hall as secretary of the N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs convened as scheduled on Wednesday, nonetheless, but ended abruptly when it became clear that Hall would not attend. Given the court ruling, Cooper’s publicly announced appointments will likely decline the legislature’s invitation until the suit is settled for good.A final ruling is expected from the court Friday.Co-chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Insurance Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Fayetteville) was defiant as he assured the General Assembly would have their say on appointments eventually.”This process is about good government, and North Carolina’s constitution clearly provides — in black and white — for the Senate to undertake this duty,” said Meredith. “The nearly identical federal process that is taking place in Washington D.C. even as we speak shows the public is paying attention, and we ought to do everything we can to give the people confidence that our state’s leaders will be accountable to them,” said Meredith.”The committee is here today and ready to proceed. However, we are going to delay this meeting because the acting secretary is not present. But make no mistake: the General Assembly will meet to review the qualifications of Gov. Cooper’s cabinet nominees as allowed by the constitution, and we are going to get answers to questions regarding their qualifications, potential conflicts of interest and willingness to obey the law.”Adding, “Until then, this meeting is adjourned.”On Monday, Cooper sent a letter to Berger (R-Rockingham) reiterating his request that the Senate delay the hearings until the court issues a final decision in the case.Eight of 10 appointments have been sworn in to office and are on the job despite not being formally presented to the state Senate. Appointments for the N.C. Department of Revenue and the N.C. Department of Information Technology have not yet been made.Cooper argued in the letter that senatorial advice and consent only applies to constitutional officers, and not to cabinet secretaries. The letter also points to state law that does not require the governor submit the names of secretarial appointments until May 15 of this year.Berger said the confirmation process was important to bring consultations with the governor’s appointments out from behind closed doors. A convening of the Senate Nominations Committee last week outlined the process for confirmation hearings as Republican leaders emphasized the hearings were not designed to be confrontational.”For years, cabinet secretaries have met behind closed doors to share their qualifications and address any concerns — like conflicts of interest — legislators may have,” said Berger. “It is extremely disturbing that Roy Cooper is demanding the state courts keep these meetings hidden behind closed doors and out of the public eye.”