Court of appeals upholds 2016 special session

Phil Berger, Roy Cooper, Tim Moore
FILE PHOTO Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, from left, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore pause prior to a news conference. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — The N.C. Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirmed a lower court ruling that upheld the legality of a legislative session Republicans called in December 2016 to pass laws weakening the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The unanimous decision of three judges on the intermediate-level appeals court affirmed a 2018 trial-court decision that declined to declare as unconstitutional the procedures used in calling and passing legislation during the three-day session.

The group Common Cause and several citizens who sued in 2017 argued that the rushed session — announced and convened mere hours after another legislative session on Hurricane Matthew relief — violated their right in the North Carolina Constitution to “instruct their representatives.” The GOP-dominated General Assembly used it to pass laws that in part diluted the governor’s powers. Cooper took office Jan. 1, 2017, after he narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the November election.

Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz, writing the panel’s opinion, suggested that complaints about hasty or imprudent legislative actions may be best resolved through political means.

“The remedy for these concerns is not with the courts; it is at the ballot box,” Dietz wrote.

Spokespeople for Common Cause and GOP legislative leaders didn’t immediately respond to emailed requests for comment on Tuesday’s opinions. The plaintiffs could seek to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, where six of the seven justices are registered Democrats.

The right to instruct had never been interpreted by an appellate court since it first appeared in North Carolina in 1776, according to Dietz. But a closer examination of the clause, he added, shows it “simply requires that the process, however quickly it moves, must be open to the public, and that the people must have ways to contact their representatives to convey their views during that process.”

That happened during this session, Dietz wrote, even though it was the first time since 1940 that the General Assembly declined to announce in advance what subjects they would consider. Such advance notice isn’t required by the constitution, he wrote, noting that lawmakers sometimes suddenly changed legislation without providing the public a heads-up.

The plaintiffs argued the quick session was a scheme by legislators to hide their actions. But Dietz wrote the session received a great deal of media coverage, with thousands of citizens sending emails seeking to intervene and hundreds of protesters picketing at the Legislative Building.

The public “unquestionably had notice of the session and the opportunity to instruct their legislators both that they opposed any action in the special session and that they opposed particular bills introduced during that session,” Dietz wrote. Court of Appeals Judges Hunter Murphy and Allegra Collins agreed with the opinion. Dietz and Murphy are registered Republicans, while Collins is a Democrat.

The December 2016 session marked the first in a series of actions by Republicans to attempt to rein in Cooper’s powers. The attorneys for the plaintiffs that sued in 2017 had asked that courts invalidate laws approved in that session that forced Cooper to have his Cabinet appointees confirmed by senators. Other changes shifting control over administering elections and reducing the number of employees Cooper could hire have been struck down due to other litigation filed by Cooper.